great chemophobia article in Slate

February 11, 2013 at 10:02 am | | pseudoscience, science and the public

I’ve argued in the past that the Precautionary Principle is logically flawed, even dangerous. A recent article on Slate gives a great job giving an example of when the Precautionary Principle goes bad. In response to a NYT article on alternative medicine, the Slate article compares the FDA-approved drugs to the alternative medicine that a mother is more comfortable giving her son. (Surprise! the alternative medicine also contains chemicals.)

The reality is this. [The NYT author] has been tricked by the language, maliciously or not, into considering switching her child from a carefully measured weekly dose of this molecule:

Chemical structure of four marvels.

To four doses a day of an unknown amount of this chemical:

Chemical structure of a drug.

Really?

I want to be absolutely clear. Neither of these chemicals is benign or nontoxic. The LD-50 (the “lethal dose” amount that kills 50 percent of mice fed the chemical) is about the same for quercetin as it is for methotrexate, roughly 150 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.

Berberine, one of the drugs found in four-marvels powder, has been documented to cause brain damage in infants. Hello? Exactly how much of this have you been giving your son?

[The NYT author's] “better the molecule I don’t know, than the molecule I do” stance may help her sleep better, but it is ignorance nonetheless. The chemicals are still there, even when you squint your eyes closed so you can’t see them.

This is really scary to me, that parents are giving their children unknown doses of potentially dangerous drugs. This is exactly the danger of the Precautionary Principle: people seem more comfortable with unknown dangers than known and carefully quantified risks. That’s a silly approach to risk, but I think it might just be how our brains work. And knowing that, we should be careful to guard against it.

Another concern not mentioned in either the Slate or NYT article is the drug interactions when taking a prescribed medicine with unknown alternative drugs: because they aren’t tested, alternative medicines have the potential for devastating interactions. The FDA should require at least safety testing (if not efficacy) of all medicines, both modern-medicine and alternative. NIH has an alternative medicines institute, but I wonder how quickly they can test all the options out there.

I want to also add that I completely understand the NYT mother’s concern about giving her son drugs every day. And I completely agree with the mom’s effort to find diet changes that help: the body is a complicated network, and diet can have a huge effect on health. And the immune system is in some senses a black box that we’re only beginning to understand. A variety of alternative treatments and diet changes should be tried, but eating a bunch of unknown chemicals because they have prettier names is really concerning.

I really feel for the boy and his mom, and I wish there was a magic wand to take away his pain. But even if there were, we should probably ask about the side effects of the wand.

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  1. to clarify, we should be very very skeptical of modern medicine and drugs. my point was that we should ALSO be skeptical of “alternative” medicines, because they can also be potent and dangerous chemicals. it’s not one or the other: we should be skeptical of BOTH.
    .
    as far as the NYT article, i’m more concerned with the tone than the actual story. the mom found a treatment of diet and Chinese drugs that seemed to help her son. granted, this was a sample size of 1 and the experiment was complicated by the fact that he also took modern drugs, but it was still a good ending. what concerns me is that the mom was highly skeptical of FDA-approved drugs that have known dosing and regulated manufacturing, but was willing to give her child a drug with unknown compounds made by who-knows-who. and she accused her husband of being too “trusting.”
    .
    yes, even with FDA testing, there are always risks. but isn’t it better to *know* about the risks than be expose to completely unknown risks? and if the known risks are high enough that we’re willing to try something with unknown risks, we should be *extra* cautious, instead of blindly trusting alternative medicines as safe (like the author of the NYT article does).

    Comment by sam — February 12, 2013 #

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