Online Petitions: Too Much Attention to the Wrong People

BY LAURA CRAMEROpinion Editor

A story that has been plastered all over the news in recent weeks is the supposed success of Mississippi teenager, Sarah Kavanagh, a 15-year-old who began a Change.org petition after reading an ingredient on her Gatorade bottle that scared her.  The petition received more than 200,000 signatures.

Her request? That Gatorade makers, PepsiCo Inc., stop including brominated vegetable oil (“BVO”) in Gatorade sports drinks.

The evidence for her claim that brominated vegetable oil is dangerous?  A Scientific American article she read, which stated that the element bromine, included in brominated vegetable oil, is also used as a flame retardant in industrial applications.

This leap of flawed logic was trumpeted in the media with headlines like “Flame retardant chemical found in U.S. soft drinks.”

To better understand why this is an inaccurate conclusion, we must consider the real chemistry of the situation.  Bromine is an element, one of 118 which compose everything in the known universe.

Brominated vegetable oil is vegetable oil which has had bromine added to it.  In citrus-flavored drinks, it stops naturally hydrophobic citrus oils from separating from the water-based drinks.

Were it not for BVO, Gatorade, Mountain Dew, and others would be topped with oil slicks of citrus flavoring.

If we condemn every chemical that contains an element which is dangerous in other contexts, no food would be safe to eat.

After all, water contains oxygen, which is also found in toxic carbon monoxide gas.  Salt contains sodium, which is a flammable metal, as well as chlorine, another toxic gas!

But what really gets my goat is the fact that media attention over this girl’s blind fear of chemicals in her drink has been wholly positive.  Every media outlet that covers Kavanagh’s actions focuses on her bravery in taking on the big corporations that produce our food and her keen eye for recognizing the dangers in chemical additives.

Kavanagh’s “success story” is an example of fear-mongering, bad chemistry, and misplaced mistrust in the food industry.  Change.org’s online petition platform offered this girl a soapbox she did not deserve.

This is only one example of a systemic problem with online petition sites; they reduce the barrier from allowing individuals to make big changes in the world, but this floodgate of petitions does not allow for critical thinking to be applied to each claim.

All that is required to be successful on a site like Change.org is an impassioned emotional claim which will appeal to a large number of people.  Facts are optional.

In order to fix this, Change.org needs to make a commitment to checking the validity of claims made in petitions, before they are made public.

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2 responses to “Online Petitions: Too Much Attention to the Wrong People

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