Monday, October 13, 2014

Dubious support for a popular health scare

There is a substantial body of people who get their jollies out of finding "threats" to health in popular products. They obviously want to appear wiser than the rest of us poor sods.  There seems to be no accepted name for them but I call them "food & heath freaks".  They are probably best known for their unfounded demonization of salt, saturated fat and artificial sweeteners  such as Aspartame.  Sugar is their current big boogeyman.
A somewhat less well-known scare is about Bisphenol A, a component of many plastics.  A few molecules of BPA have been shown to leach out of plastic bottles into the liquid contained in the bottle.  For that reason plastic bably bottles have been more or less banned and glass baby bottles are mostly used instead.  Glass is of course fragile and dangerous when broken but any decrease in safety from its use in baby bottles is ignored by food & health freaks.

The question is, however, how toxic is ingested BPA?  Rats given enough of it certainly fall ill but as Paracelsus pointed out long ago, the toxicity is in the dose.  And it seems unlikely that a few molecules received from a plastic bottle are harmful.  And that is what most studies of the matter show.  Like a terrier that won't let go of a bone, however, "research" to detect harm goes on among the  food & heath freaks.

The latest stab at BPA has just come out in JAMA and I give the abstract below.  I have however read the whole article and I would summarize the results rather differently.  What they found was that the amount of BPA in the pregnant mother's blood correlated marginally significantly (p = .03) with the infant's lung function 4 years after birth but not 5 years after birth.  That is a very shaky finding indeed and shows, if anything, that BPA is safe.  They also looked at the correlation between mother-reported wheezing in the kid and BPA levels but that correlation failed to reach statistical significance (p = .11).

They do however rather desperately hang their hat on a correlation with wheeze drawn from the BPA concentration in the mother at 16 weeks.  That correlation had vanished at 26 weeks gestation however so again the results actually show that BPA is safe  -- no lasting ill-effects.

Not much there for the BPA freaks. I am not alone in that conclusion.   The abstract follows:


Bisphenol A Exposure and the Development of Wheeze and Lung Function in Children Through Age 5 Years

Adam J. Spanier et al.


Bisphenol A (BPA), a prevalent endocrine-disrupting chemical, has been associated with wheezing in children, but few studies have examined its effect on lung function or wheeze in older children.

To test whether BPA exposure is associated with lung function, with wheeze, and with pattern of wheeze in children during their first 5 years.

Design, Setting, and Participants
A birth cohort study, enrolled during early pregnancy in the greater Cincinnati, Ohio, area among 398 mother-infant dyads.
We collected maternal urine samples during pregnancy (at 16 and 26 weeks) and child urine samples annually to assess gestational and child BPA exposure.

Main Outcomes and Measures
We assessed parent-reported wheeze every 6 months for 5 years and measured child forced expiratory volume in the first second of expiration (FEV1) at age 4 and 5 years. We evaluated associations of BPA exposure with respiratory outcomes, including FEV1, child wheeze, and wheeze phenotype.

Urinary BPA concentrations and FEV1 data were available for 208 children and urinary BPA concentrations and parent-reported wheeze data were available for 360 children. The mean maternal urinary BPA concentration ranged from 0.53 to 293.55 ‘g/g of creatinine. In multivariable analysis, every 10-fold increase in the mean maternal urinary BPA concentration was associated with a 14.2% (95% CI, -24.5% to -3.9%) decrease in the percentage predicted FEV1 at 4 years, but no association was found at 5 years. In multivariable analysis, every 10-fold increase in the mean maternal urinary BPA concentration was marginally associated with a 54.8% increase in the odds of wheezing (adjusted odds ratio, 1.55; 95% CI, 0.91-2.63). While the mean maternal urinary BPA concentration was not associated with wheeze phenotype, a 10-fold increase in the 16-week maternal urinary BPA concentration was associated with a 4.27-fold increase in the odds of persistent wheeze (adjusted odds ratio, 4.27; 95% CI, 1.37-13.30). Child urinary BPA concentrations were not associated with FEV1 or wheeze.

Conclusions and Relevance
These results provide evidence suggesting that prenatal but not postnatal exposure to BPA is associated with diminished lung function and the development of persistent wheeze in children.



Why do so many liberals despise Christianity?

Liberals increasingly want to enforce a comprehensive, uniformly secular vision of the human good. And they see alternative visions of the good as increasingly intolerable.

Liberalism seems to have an irrational animus against Christianity. Consider these two stories highlighted in the last week by conservative Christian blogger Rod Dreher.

Item 1: In a widely discussed essay in Slate, author Brian Palmer writes about the prevalence of missionary doctors and nurses in Africa and their crucial role in treating those suffering from Ebola. Palmer tries to be fair-minded, but he nonetheless expresses "ambivalence," "suspicion," and "visceral discomfort" about the fact that these men and women are motivated to make "long-term commitments to address the health problems of poor Africans," to "risk their lives," and to accept poor compensation (and sometimes none at all) because of their Christian faith.

The question is why he considers this a problem.

Palmer mentions a lack of data and an absence of regulatory oversight. But he's honest enough to admit that these aren't the real reasons for his concern. The real reason is that he doesn't believe that missionaries are capable "of separating their religious work from their medical work," even when they vow not to proselytize their patients. And that, in his view, is unacceptable - apparently because he's an atheist and religion creeps him out. As he puts it, rather wanly, "It's great that these people are doing God's work, but do they have to talk about Him so much?"

That overriding distaste for religion leads Palmer to propose a radical corollary to the classical liberal ideal of a separation between church and state - one that goes far beyond politics, narrowly construed. Palmer thinks it's necessary to uphold a separation of "religion and health care."

Item 2: Gordon College, a small Christian school north of Boston, is facing the possibility of having its accreditation revoked by the higher education commission of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, according to an article in the Boston Business Journal. Since accreditation determines a school's eligibility to participate in federal and state financial aid programs, and the eligibility of its students to be accepted into graduate programs and to meet requirements for professional licensure, revoking a school's accreditation is a big deal - and can even be a death sentence.

What has Gordon College done to jeopardize its accreditation? It has chosen to enforce a "life and conduct statement" that forbids "homosexual practice" on campus.

Now, one could imagine a situation in which such a statement might legitimately run afoul of an accreditation board or even anti-discrimination statutes and regulations - if, for example, it stated that being gay is a sign of innate depravity and that students who feel same-sex attraction should be subject to punishment for having such desires.

But that isn't the case here. At all. In accordance with traditional Christian teaching, Gordon College bans all sexual relationships outside of marriage, gay or straight, and it goes out of its way to say that its structures against homosexual acts apply only to behavior and not to same-sex desires or orientation.

The accreditation board is not so much objecting to the college's treatment of gays as it is rejecting the legitimacy of its devoutly Christian sexual beliefs.

The anti-missionary article and the story of Gordon College's troubles are both examples (among many others) of contemporary liberalism's irrational animus against religion in general and traditional forms of Christianity in particular.

My use of the term "irrational animus" isn't arbitrary. The Supreme Court has made "irrational animus" a cornerstone of its jurisprudence on gay rights. A law cannot stand if it can be shown to be motivated by rationally unjustifiable hostility to homosexuals, and on several occasions the court has declared that traditional religious objections to homosexuality are reducible to just such a motive.

But the urge to eliminate Christianity's influence on and legacy within our world can be its own form of irrational animus. The problem is not just the cavalier dismissal of people's long-established beliefs and the ways of life and traditions based on them. The problem is also the dogmatic denial of the beauty and wisdom contained within those beliefs, ways of life, and traditions. (You know, the kind of thing that leads a doctor to risk his life and forego a comfortable stateside livelihood in favor of treating deadly illness in dangerous, impoverished African cities and villages, all out of a love for Jesus Christ.)

Contemporary liberals increasingly think and talk like a class of self-satisfied commissars enforcing a comprehensive, uniformly secular vision of the human good. The idea that someone, somewhere might devote her life to an alternative vision of the good - one that clashes in some respects with liberalism's moral creed - is increasingly intolerable.

That is a betrayal of what's best in the liberal tradition.

Liberals should be pleased and express gratitude when people do good deeds, whether or not those deeds are motivated by faith. They should also be content to give voluntary associations (like religious colleges) wide latitude to orient themselves to visions of the human good rooted in traditions and experiences that transcend liberal modernity - provided they don't clash in a fundamental way with liberal ideals and institutions.

In the end, what we're seeing is an effort to greatly expand the list of beliefs, traditions, and ways of life that fundamentally clash with liberalism. That is an effort that no genuine liberal should want to succeed.

What happened to a liberalism of skepticism, modesty, humility, and openness to conflicting notions of the highest good? What happened to a liberalism of pluralism that recognizes that when people are allowed to search for truth in freedom, they are liable to seek and find it in a multitude of values, beliefs, and traditions? What happened to a liberalism that sees this diversity as one of the finest flowers of a free society rather than a threat to the liberal democratic order?

I don't have answers to these questions - and frankly, not a lot hinges on figuring out how we got here. What matters is that we acknowledge that something in the liberal mind has changed, and that we act to recover what has been lost.



Panetta's 'Worthy Fights' Over Obama's Ego

Leon Panetta's memoir, "Worthy Fights," is causing a big stir in Washington and beyond. Panetta was a major player in the president's national security team as CIA director and then defense secretary. The release of his book couldn't be more timely, and the way it's being received by the White House and the media couldn't be more telling of the current state of affairs in the Obama administration.

When Panetta came to the administration, he already had a well-established career in Democrat politics. He had served eight terms in Congress before Bill Clinton recruited him in 1993 to run the Office of Management and Budget. Panetta then became Clinton's chief of staff, taking on the job of bringing order to the political free-for-all that was the White House during the second half of Clinton's first term. After that, he spent time doing what politicos often do when they leave office - he established a policy group, lectured and did some teaching. Then he was tapped by Obama to head the CIA in 2009, and two years later, he became Pentagon chief, wrapping up his service shortly after the beginning of Obama's second term.

For those of us who see Obama's foreign policy for the malfeasance that it is, Panetta's grocery list of national security screw-ups doesn't come as a surprise. What's interesting is how he tries to walk a tightrope of offering praise for the president while skewering him at the same time. Panetta takes pains to hail Obama's keen intellect, as so many who have served with the president often do, but his recollections actually go on to refute that flattery.

Panetta recounts through several episodes that the president lacks the passion of a leader and repeatedly exhibits "a frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause." Wouldn't someone with a keen intellect recognize that leadership is crucial to achieving his goal? And, if he believed in his ideas, wouldn't he be willing to actively defend them with logic rather than petulant political attacks on the opposition?

Iraq is a prime example of Panetta's account of Obama's poor leadership. He details how Obama basically sabotaged that country's future by letting his desire to fulfill a campaign pledge - get America out of Iraq - cloud the basic fact that America's military presence was integral to keeping the country together. The White House was "so eager to rid itself of Iraq," Panetta said, "that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests."

Furthermore, Panetta wrote, "My fear, as I voiced to the President and others, was that if the country split apart or slid back into the violence that we'd seen in the years immediately following the U.S. invasion, it could become a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the U.S." His stance, he said, "reflected not just my views but also those of the military commanders in the region and the Joint Chiefs." So Obama's "keen intellect" won out over his knowledgeable advisers.

Indecision combined with deliberately setting unrealistic expectations for Iraq's fragile government essentially sunk the status of forces agreement that the U.S. was trying to hammer out with then-Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki. Obama pleased his constituents, but Panetta argues the end result was "a vacuum in terms of the ability of that country to better protect itself, and it's out of that vacuum that [ISIL] began to breed." (Someone else warned about that too.) Now we've got boots back in the air, fighting what Panetta says should be a "long and sustained battle."

Panetta's motives aren't pure. He's obviously out to sell books, and he may even be angling for a position (secretary of state?) in a Hillary Clinton administration. But Panetta has also captured from the inside what we've been saying about Obama all along - essentially that the president is a narcissist who ignores wise advice in pursuit of his own ideological agenda. In Iraq, that's proved disastrous. And it's worth hammering home.



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