In February of this year, there was another round of media sensationalism when it was reported that a number of popular brands of lipstick contain potentially dangerous levels of lead. This is not a new claim; it has popped up a number of times, including during the 1990s and again in 2007.
It is, of course, true that many lipsticks do contain lead. It’s an effective component of some color additives, and is used at levels that are well below safety margins. Most mainstream media reported this accurately, such as this article from the Washington Post, but gave a voice to self-described watchdog groups such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics who put out this report claiming that there is “no safe level of lead exposure” and mischaracterizing the lead content in lipstick as “contamination”. Some alternative media and chain emails even got the science more wrong than that, stating that the lead is a cancer risk. (The practical danger from lead poisoning is as a neurotoxin, not a carcinogen.) Snopes effectively debunked those reports.
There is probably no need to repeat it here, but there is a safe level of every substance, including lead. Poisons are defined only by their dose. The FDA, which regulates lead levels in color additives, thoroughly stated the facts and explained the levels. The highest level found was about 7 ppm, and the average is about 1 ppm. Although the FDA doesn’t regulate lipstick itself, they do regulate the color additives; and their maximum safe level is 20 ppm. So there’s little room for rational debate; all known lipsticks contain lead levels that are far below safety margins.
But my point in writing this post is not to lay out these facts, as they’re widely available to anyone who’s serious about learning the real science. My point is to question whether mainstream media, such as the Washington Post, missed an opportunity to inject a little scientific skepticism into the public zeitgeist. True, they’re a media outlet, which survives on eyeball share and the type of reputation gained by “fairly” reporting “both sides” of a story. So, while at first glance we may dismiss a news agency’s likelihood to be skeptical as unrealistic, we can at the same time argue that it should be everyone’s obligation, all the time, to improve and not erode the public’s ability to separate fact from fiction.
While I don’t have any specific complaints about this particular Washington Post article — given their need to be “fair and balanced” — I can suggest a way that all such news articles could be easily improved. It was undoubtedly clear to the reporter that the charges of the lead being dangerous were fringe claims that have practically zero support among knowledgeable experts; there is no way the reporter could have spoken to multiple sources and not learned this glaring fact. Nevertheless it was her duty to report “both sides”, and I believe we have to realistically accept that that’s how it’s going to continue to be. But think what a useful effect a paragraph like this would have added:
While true lead poisoning can indeed be dangerous, lead — like all compounds — is also found in safe levels throughout our natural environment. The view expressed by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics does not appear to align with any known observations or sound theory.
It’s simple, it’s true, and it would have been trivial to support with a quotation from virtually anyone that a reporter is likely to talk to. Most significantly, it would have truly enlightened the readers who come to the news media to learn what’s actually going on in the world. False balance, while expedient, is harmful by itself; but when offered with a touch of skepticism, can fulfill both the media’s needs and the natural obligation to do good works.