You can almost — almost — forgive California Attorney General Bill Lockyer for being defensive about his misguided lawsuits against food companies and restaurants that sell fried potato products, which contain trace amounts of a chemical called acrylamide. He recently wrote to a newspaper attempting to justify his suits, which are filed under the state’s infamous “bounty hunter” law, Proposition 65, and which require disclosure of any known carcinogen. But as we explained in a recent Orange County Register op-ed, in the levels found in the human diet, acrylamide is perfectly safe — and the attorney general is off base on a number of levels. A recent article in Investor’s Business Daily agreed with us, writing that “Lockyer’s position is based on the stuff-the-mouse-till-it-explodes school of science.”
Lockyer argues in a letter to the Ventura County Star — and again in an op-ed in today’s San Francisco Chronicle — that it’s his job to sue food companies because acrylamide is supposedly “exceptionally high in potato chips and french fries.” But consider this: An average woman would have to eat 62.5 pounds of potato chips — every day, for life — to have the same risk of cancer as previously tested lab rats. And you’d have to scarf down your weight in French fries every day to have the same risk.
Unfortunately, Lockyer leans on misleading math to needlessly scare consumers:
The Environmental Protection Agency already prohibits more than 0.5 micrograms of acrylamide per liter of water. According to the Governor’s Office of Environmental Health Hazards Assessment, an average serving of french fries or potato chips has 40 micrograms — that’s 80 times the safe level in drinking water.
But Dr. Jitendra Saxena (from the EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water) told us Lockyer’s comparison between acrylamide in drinking water and fried potatoes is bunk. Dr. Saxena explained that the drinking water standard doesn’t apply to foods or other products. But if Lockyer were to compare his 40-microgram fear factor to the lowest amount of water-borne acrylamide that produced cancer in lab rats, Californians would have to eat 875 of these French fry servings every day for life in order to expose themselves to this hypothetical risk. Our Orange County Register op-ed explains that the amount of acrylamide people actually eat is perfectly safe:
Unless we all stop eating breakfast cereal, give up toast, and swear off spinach (not exactly a recipe for good health), harmless amounts of acrylamide will be a fact of life. It’s always been there, and we typically get a daily dose that’s 10,000 times smaller than the weight-adjusted amount that gives cancer to lab rats.
Not surprisingly, human studies from Harvard University, the International Journal of Cancer and elsewhere have shown no health effects from dietary acrylamide.
Frankly, we’ll take the medical experts’ opinion over that of a trial lawyer-turned-politician. Speaking of lawyers, our op-ed also noted their prominent role in this debacle:
Lawyers who specialize in Proposition 65 lawsuits have targeted manufacturers for failing to adequately warn the public about the harmful nature of brass darts, video-game joysticks, billiard chalk, Christmas lights, hammers, and picture frames. The Civil Justice Association of California reports that one such attorney filed 400 lawsuits against candle makers, claiming their products emitted toxic fumes when burned.
For perspective, consider the ridiculous Prop 65 lawsuit brought against the makers of lunchboxes, because they fail to warn of minute amounts of lead. But as the Consumer Products Safety Commission recently pointed out: “Based on the low levels of lead found in our tests, in some cases, children would have to rub their lunch box and then lick their hands over 1,000 times a day, for 15-30 days, in order for the lunch box to present a hazard.“