TCS Daily

A Chemical (Over)Reaction

By Todd Seavey - January 30, 2003 12:00 AM

The wing of the environmental movement that is hostile to the use of synthetic chemicals will try out some new scare tactics this week. Instead of exaggerating risks associated with a single chemical - such as Alar, PCBs, or acrylamide in fried foods - the anti-chemical activists will now encourage a broader paranoia about the (unproven) effects of human exposure to lots of chemicals combined.

The effort is led by an umbrella group called CHE - the Collaborative on Health and the Environment. But it involves other activist organizations, such as the Environmental Working Group and the scare-fostering public relations firm Fenton Communications (the people behind recent inflammatory ads likening SUVs to support for terrorism and asking "What would Jesus drive?"). Together, they are issuing a report that makes sweeping and unsubstantiated claims that numerous illnesses - from learning disabilities to childhood leukemia - are caused by the population's exposure to synthetic chemicals.

Normally this sort of broad-brush terror tactic would consign the anti-chemical activists to the fringe, alongside the sorts of people who fear that electronic equipment causes their migraines. However, CHE and its allies are timing their report about chemicals to coincide with the release tomorrow of a legitimate, scientific report from the Centers for Disease Control about trace levels of chemicals in our bodies.

But the CDC report - unlike the CHE report - does not say that we are exposed to environmental chemicals in large enough amounts to have human health effects. And the CDC certainly does not argue that specific dire illnesses can be attributed to chemicals.

Switching Tactics, Still Stoking Fear

In fact, thanks to the CDC report, we're now more certain than ever that the synthetic chemical amounts we are routinely subjected to are trivial. We ought to feel safer than ever. And we will, provided environmental alarmism doesn't cloud the media coverage of the CDC report. Here's how it just might.

First, advocacy groups will now simply assert a new array of doubts. They may concede that, say, exposure to one synthetic chemical alone may not cause birth defects. But what about exposure to three chemicals in combination? Or four? While it's true that there is an infinite number of possible combinations of chemicals, there is no good scientific reason to think that every imaginable combination is a health hazard.

In fact, a few years ago a group of scientists at Tulane University allegedly demonstrated such a synergistic effect in a paper they published in the journal Science. But neither they, nor any other laboratory that tried, was ever able to replicate those results. Replication of scientific lab experiments is a hallmark of sound scientific inquiry. As a result, the paper was withdrawn two years after it was published.

Second, the media - unaware of the fact that it is common scientific knowledge that traces of environmental chemicals, both synthetic and natural, make their way into our bodies - will enter CHE's spin zone and present the CDC report as if it were shocking news. We can imagine the headlines: "Trace levels of chemicals found in the environment and in your body." The media may accept the CHE spin, doing so for the simple reason that CHE's archangels of armageddon are more exciting than CDC scientists.

Resorting to Innuendo

But before buying into the spin, the media should know that rather than relying on sound, objective science, these environmental activists resort to innuendo. The Environmental Working Group, for instance, ran a full-page ad in the January 29 New York Times entitled "Body Burden: the pollution in people". The ad shows a woman with breast cancer and proceeds to tell us that when scientists examined her "she was astounded at the sheer number of chemicals present... Andrea is left to wonder about the relationship between her cancers and the environmental contaminants stored in her body... Chemical companies do not have the answers either."

But this is not an argument grounded in science. This is an irresponsible exercise in terrifying people with the specter of a creeping, unknown influence taking over their bodies. Science does not suggest a connection between breast cancer and environmental chemicals. Far from it. Many studies seeking such a link have come up empty, including a recent large federal study dealing with Long Island women and breast cancer - a study demanded by anti-chemical activists themselves.

The EWG pulls an even sneakier tactic in its ad when it says that many synthetic chemicals in our environment are "known to cause cancer in humans or in laboratory studies." The "or" is crucial, and deliberately misleading. What EWG really means is that animals given extraordinarily high doses of such chemicals over very long periods of time may get cancer. But the central lesson of the CDC study is that we are not being exposed to those staggering amounts of chemicals.

Moreover, the EWG examined only nine people in reaching its dire conclusions about the entire population ("a highly concentrated study" is Fenton's positive-sounding spin).

In science, if you have to twist the facts, you're probably defending the wrong position. In politics, if you have to resort to scare tactics, it's probably time to abandon your cause. Fright does not make right.

For a balanced look at trace levels of chemicals in the environment, see the American Council on Science and Health report here. Also see ACSH's book "Are Children More Vulnerable to Environmental Chemicals?" Todd Seavey is editor of ACSH's webzine

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