Smoke without fire

A Euro-report warning of chemicals in scented candles crosses the line between scaremongering and self-parody.

Sarah David

Topics Politics

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A recent report has found that chemicals inhaled on a busy street are no more toxic than those emitted by scented candles burnt in the comfort of your home. Or rather, this is what the report found, but consumer campaigners reversed their findings to squeal: ‘did you know that by using air freshener in your living room you are probably breathing in more toxic substances than you would in the middle of traffic?’ (1)

The tests carried out by a European consumers group highlight the irrationality of the argument that our environment is killing us – and the willingness of the public and politicians unquestioningly to take such prejudices on board.

The Beuc Report on the effects of air freshening products – including incense, candles and essential oil – labels its findings ‘shocking’, and demands immediate laws limiting their use (2). But a glance at the detail of a report handed out to journalists with a shock-horror press release shows that even the lobbyists cannot sustain their own argument beyond a few puns (‘foul smelling air fresheners!’) and high-pitched adjectives (3).

There are all the usual flaws found in ‘toxic’ chemicals stories: some of the ‘carcinogens’ detected in air fresheners are officially classed as no more dangerous than coffee, and the health effects of others – in the rare cases where they have been observed at all – have only been observed in rats or goldfish.

I’m not a goldfish. I drink coffee. So far so what?

But as scare stories like the Beuc findings become more high profile, gratefully welcomed by policymakers as they churn out proposals to overhaul Europe’s chemicals industry, lobby groups are feeling the need to back up what would once have been a three-paragraph press release with a newspaper’s worth of text.

And they can’t do it. The need to back up their claims has pushed them beyond the point where the precautionary principle could casually be invoked to back up any worst-case scenario. The worriers are increasingly getting tangled in their own lack of logic.

A press release on toxins which admitted that ‘toxicological data are often lacking’ for the substances criticised might get past a tired hack facing a deadline. A 20-page press pack constantly referring to what is ‘generally assumed’ (without a footnote to give an example of who might make the assumption), or stating that there are absolutely ‘no findings’ to support what is hypothesised, begins to ring alarm bells in the head of anyone who has the time to read it.

The air freshener scaremongers, in paragraph six of a supporting document, score a beautiful own goal. ‘Of course, there is no reason to overreact: these products are potentially toxic but at the levels registered the harmful effects are often unlikely to occur when the products are used on an occasional basis.’ (4)

This admission is hurriedly followed by an attempt to backtrack with a ‘however’: ‘Since our homes are already filled with all sorts of chemical products, it is best to avoid adding even more.’ This is rather like saying that since cake contains lots of calories you’d better not eat salad.

The group concludes the same document by admitting that multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) ‘is considered by most scientists to be a clinical manifestation of a state of anxiety’ based simply on perceived exposure to chemicals. But hang on, they add, just because it’s not real doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pander to it. Indeed MCS is ‘best prevented by avoiding exposure to the incriminating substance’.

The louder the proponents of the precautionary principle shout, the more strained their voices sound. But if their arguments are so easily dismissed, why is no one dismissing them? Partly this is because constant references to things that can’t be proved – together with the odd goldfish-backed experiment – can be as effective as speaking in words of four syllables: by the time your audience has worked out you’ve got nothing to say, the argument is over.

But partly it’s because people are terrified to take on the precautionary principle brigade. Nowhere has the adage ‘hiding behind children’ been more appropriate than when applied to the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and lobby groups who constantly tell us they might just about forgive us if, with our cigarettes and cleaning products and unthinking use of cheap flights, we were only leading ourselves to an early grave. But in fact, they sigh, it’s the children we are killing with our selfishness.

Attacks on anyone who opposes these organisations quickly become very personal. Not only do they accuse anybody who disagrees of being a child killer – a crime guaranteed to horrify since the Romans libelled the Carthaginians – but they will name and shame, without proof to back up their accusations.

Any journalist who’s published the mildest criticism – or even worse, given space to the views of an opposing group – can tell you it’s one of the easiest ways to fill your inbox with complaints and cries of ‘oh how could you’ overnight.

There is, however, an alternative to tackling the scare stories on their own terms, or joining industry and multinationals in their dignified but misguided silence, and it is a very obvious one.

The idea that scented candles are fatal, or that there should be laws prohibiting the use of essential oils, is hilarious. And if there’s one thing people who take themselves too seriously (stand up Beuc, WWF, Greenpeace et al) cannot stand, it’s being laughed at. It is particularly amusing to think that all those friends of the earth who get back from a hard day saving the planet and light a soothing patchouli candle are, according to their own argument, doing themselves as much harm as the decadent unconverted, driving their cars to a smoky bar.

The air freshener findings are a good example of a green campaign apparently going out of its way to look ridiculous. Bin the shop-bought air fresheners, they tell us, and instead try: simmering cinnamon, mixing sand and herbs in an ashtray, or strategically placing an orange studded with cloves (hang on, didn’t people think that warded off the plague, about 700 years ago?)

The best way to silence anybody puffed up with their own importance is to laugh at them. Ideally to laugh and then turn to more important topics. But we need a lot of people to ridicule the ridiculous, if a ban on lighting up in public is not ultimately to be followed by a ban on lighting candles in private.

(1) Beuc press release 22/11/2004

(2) Beuc translation of member group Test-Achats document ‘Air fresheners: hidden pollutants’, part of a press pack on the report. The document demands ‘appropriate legislation’ regulating air fresheners, along with mandatory health warnings on packaging. At the press launch Beuc also called for air freshener ‘standards’ and an outright ban on three (named) products

(3) Beuc press release 22/11/2004

(4) Beuc translation of member group Test-Achats document ‘Air fresheners: hidden pollutants’

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Topics Politics


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