Thursday, June 21, 2012

Getting a handle on relative harm

I run the risk of excoriations from the environmental community by writing this post, but come on!  The AP recently reported:

Samsonite International SA is recalling 250,000 "Tokyo Chic" suitcases worldwide to replace handles on the bags after a Hong Kong consumer group found high levels of compounds linked to cancer.

The luggage maker said Tuesday that independent tests showed the suitcases posed no health hazard and it was carrying out the recall to allay consumer concerns.

The issue is the use of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the manufacturing process.
People at Cal Tech explain what PAHs are: 

PAHs are actually common in our day-to-day experience. A variety of these molecules are formed anytime carbon-based materials are burned incompletely. They comprise the sooty exhaust from automobile and airplane engines. They coat the grills where charcoal-broiled meats are cooked. They are the primary ingredients of industrial compounds like mothballs and glue for plastic 

PAHs are carcinogenic in certain concentrations and durations of exposure.  But not here:

"A human being has to eat 100 handles and then you have the probability of one in a billion chance of getting cancer."

And there is a cost:

The company expects to spend $500,000 on the recall, which involves 250,000 suitcases sold over the past three years.  The company said it will take about a week to replace the handles on 30,000 still in stock.

There is also an environmental cost:  Transporting all those suitcases back to the factory; running molds for the new handles; attaching the new handles; and redistributing the new suitcases back to the stores.  I dare say that the pollution caused by the recall will have a greater detrimental effect on the Hong Kong population than even the most aggressive estimate of harm from the handles.

This is an example, I think, of scientific illiteracy.


The Medical Contrarian said...

Kudos...well stated. It's all about appearances of accomplishment, not actual accomplishment.

Anonymous said...

Not only that, but the horse is way out of that barn. We are surrounded, nay, deluged, by environmental carcinogens and toxins. Why pick on one minor component? We have made our bed and must lie in it.