There are plenty of haunted houses and ghostly decorations to give people a thrill at Halloween time. But sometimes, the scariest things in life are the things you can’t see.
The world gets pretty spooky when causal claims are made using “invisible” evidence. Below are some examples of major decisions made this year that, upon closer examination, weren’t based on sound scientific research.
1. California bans Red Dye No. 3
Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill in October that will ban the making and selling of food and candy products containing Red Dye No. 3 in California. Besides the red, orange, and pink treats that will disappear from shelves, it will impact foods that might surprise shoppers, like mashed potatoes, barbecue sauce, yellow rice, sausage casings, and more.
As we covered in a past blog post, there remains no evidence that using Red Dye No. 3 as a food additive causes cancer in humans. But people are still spooked anyway due to regulations at the FDA regarding the additive that seem to contradict each other.
Decades ago, some unpublished studies linked extremely high doses of the red dye to cancer in lab rats. The dosage levels were unlike anything that could be possibly experienced by a human being. Yet, due to a legal quirk in the system, the FDA had to forbid it from use in cosmetics and externally applied drugs.
Then the agency downplayed its own ban—only adding to public confusion. “The actual risk posed by Red No. 3 is extremely small,” said Dr. Louis Sullivan, then-Secretary of Health and Human Services. “However, federal law in this area is clear … small as the risk is, we have no choice under the law but to end the provisional listing of this product.”
This technical FDA ban is a big talking point for those who want to ban the additive in all food and candy, but the existing scientific research is nowhere near supporting such a thing. In the meantime, FDA is not too pleased with California’s decision to ban Red Dye No. 3.
An agency representative told reporters the ban might post harmful disruptions to food supply. “The U.S. depends on a unified food system,” the representative told NPR. “The science-based FDA approach to oversight of the food system is the best way to ensure safety.”
2. IARC claims aspartame causes cancer
In July, an agency that is part of the World Health Organization (the International Agency for Research on Cancer or IARC) claimed that aspartame, a sweetener used in many popular foods and drinks is “possibly carcinogenic.” The announcement ignited a media firestorm.
It also contradicted food regulatory agencies worldwide, some of which have openly criticized IARC’s methods. In fact, on the same day IARC made the announcement, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released its own statement expressing concerns about the quality of the studies IARC used.
IARC has yet to publish more details on its methods and findings. No mention has been made of a peer review. Consumers are left to sit and wait for someone to evaluate the claim that they’ve been poisoning themselves for years—ironically, in the name of health and sugar avoidance.
3. EPA claims formaldehyde causes cancers
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to be haunted by its 2022 statement that inhaled formaldehyde, even at low levels, causes myeloid leukemia and other lymphohematopoietic (LHP) cancers. To start, its claim conflicts with several assessments, including that of the U.S. National Toxicology Program.
Problematic methods used in EPA’s draft assessment on the issue, along with ethical concerns over the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s external peer review of those methods, led to a lawsuit filed in July 2023 by the American Chemistry Council.
Among the lawsuit’s claims is that the National Academies’ study director was a former scientist on the EPA payroll who helped develop its formaldehyde assessment in 2012, presenting a huge conflict of interest and potentially requiring him to critically review his own work.
Formaldehyde is used as a preservative in a variety of products, including paper and household products, medicines, cosmetics, chemical hair straighteners, dish soap, and more. One way or another, it impacts more than 3 million U.S. jobs. Assessments on the safety of such a product should be made using the highest standards of science.
The Center is funding an independent systematic review of the literature that will bring more clarity to the issue. Its findings are expected to be published this year and will be shared and discussed at the 2023 Society for Risk Analysis Meeting in Washington, DC.
4. Gas stove bans in Australia and the U.S.
One of the latest and loudest public health scares in the United States centers around the use of gas stoves. Pundits claim that gas stoves cause asthma in children and have even compared it to secondhand tobacco smoke. However, it has not been well established that exhaust levels of chemicals such as nitrogen dioxide, found in gas stoves, pose a health risk, and widely cited studies that precipitated these bans have been found to have significant weaknesses in their methods.
This lack of evidence has not stopped activists from pressuring several U.S. cities and counties to fully or partially ban gas stoves in new builds, including Berkley, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—which later inspired similar bans in other countries such as Australia.
After all, why let a lack of evidence get in the way of a perfectly good fear campaign?
At its core, the Center for Truth in Science exists to call out “invisible evidence” and make sure the systems that shape our world are grounded in facts, not fear and greed.
Imagine a world that doesn’t use sound science—now that’s scarier than any haunted house.