Back in 1651 Thomas Hobbes described life in the state of nature as “nasty, brutish, and short.” But even in civilized society during his lifetime, most people lived under what we would consider wretched conditions. At that time, you were lucky if you lived past 30; our notion of basic sanitation didn’t exist; people used city streets to dispose of their trash; plagues were not uncommon; food supply was often short and very basic; and rudimentary home-heating systems using wood or coal made indoor air pollution a serious health hazard. While many of the problems were environmental, few people had the time or leisure to worry about “the environment” as a public issue. Most simply worried about day-to-day survival.
But dramatic changes in the quality of life have occurred in recent history. Global life expectancy in the last century climbed from 30 to around 60. In the United States, life expectancy has reached 76. So many of the things we take for granted—hot and cold running water, health care, and a stable food supply—were unknown to mankind throughout most of history.
Why is it that in the last couple of centuries things have changed so rapidly, when for thousands of years life remained a struggle for survival? For one thing, free-market economies emerged, based on the principles on which the United States was founded. John Locke spoke of these principles as the unalienable rights to “life, liberty, and estate.” Later Thomas Jefferson echoed these sentiments and helped make them central to the American way of life. Such basic liberties mean that we in America have the right to self-determination and the right to profit from our own ingenuity. From the onset of government based on fundamental rights, free-market economies emerged, wealth increased profoundly, and our quality of life improved by leaps and bounds.
Among the many achievements was the development of manmade chemicals, which have revolutionized how we live. They make possible such things as pharmaceuticals, safe drinking water, and pest control. Yet popular perception is that manmade chemicals are the source of every possible ill from cancer, ozone depletion, and infertility to brain damage. Ignoring that nature produces far more chemicals in far higher doses and that most chemicals are innocuous at low doses, activists capitalize on these fears. They scare the public by hyping the risks to ensure that the government passes volumes of laws and regulations all focused on the elimination of chemicals, thus jeopardizing our freedom without much regard for the tradeoffs.
Advocates of such limits say that we need to make sure every chemical is safe before exposing the public. In his recent book, Pandora’s Poison, Greenpeace’s Joe Thornton calls on society to follow the “precautionary principle,” which says we should avoid practices that have the potential to cause severe damage, even in the absence of scientific proof of harm. Thornton advocates a “zero discharge” policy, which calls for the elimination of all “bioaccumulative” chemicals. In particular, he has long called for the elimination of chlorine, about which he noted in Science magazine (July 9, 1993): “There are no known uses for chlorine which we regard as safe.” More recently, perhaps in recognition that this standard is politically untenable, he suggested that we continue using chlorine for “some pharmaceuticals” and some “water disinfection,” but only until other options become available.
Promoting such “precautionary policies” could mean halting all industrial activity, because nothing can be proven 100 percent safe. Hence, such policies carry dangerous tradeoffs. While chemicals may create new risks, they have been used to eliminate others—many of which wreaked havoc on civilization for centuries. As the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Fred Smith notes: “Experience demonstrates that the risks of innovation, while real, are vastly less than risks of stagnation.” Indeed, he asks, what would the world be like if we had never introduced penicillin because we could not prove it was 100 percent safe?
While we don’t think much about it, manmade chemicals are essential to almost everything we do. They make our cars run; they clean everything from our teeth to our dishes; they reduce illnesses by disinfecting everything from our bathrooms at home to the operating rooms in our hospitals; they are used on food products such as poultry to eliminate E. coli and other deadly pathogens; and they keep our computers, televisions, and other electronic products running. Consider just a few of the critical functions they perform in making our lives better:
• Chlorination of water supplies has saved millions of lives. For example, since local engineers and industry introduced chlorination in 1880s, waterborne-related deaths in the United States have dropped from 75 to 100 per 100,000 people to fewer than 0.1 deaths per 100,000 annually in 1950.1 Rather than curtailing the use of chlorination as Thornton suggests, we should be expanding access. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in the developing world diarrheal diseases (such as cholera and dysentery) kill about two million children under five every year because of such things as poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water. Nearly 85 percent of pharmaceuticals that we now use require chlorine in their production.
• Thanks to chemicals used for pharmaceuticals, combination drug therapy has reduced AIDS deaths by more than 70 percent from 1994 to 1997.2
• Fifty percent of the reductions in heart-disease-related deaths between 1980 and 1990 (total death-rate decline of 30 percent) are attributable to medicines and the chemicals that compose them.3
• Chemicals called phthalates (there are several kinds) are used in PVC—vinyl used for medical tubing, blood bags, and numerous other products. While environmentalists have tried to ban these,4 vinyl medical devices provide many life-saving benefits. PVC is a safe, durable, sterile product that can withstand heat and pressure, and produces tubing that doesn’t kink. It’s particularly beneficial for vinyl blood bags because it stores blood twice as long as the next best alternative and doesn’t break like glass alternatives. In times of blood shortages, PVC blood bags are an essential tool in maintaining and transporting supply.
• Thanks to modern farming with chemicals, food production has outpaced population growth—providing people in both developed and developing countries with more food per person. Per capita grain supplies have grown by 27 percent since 1950, and food prices have declined in real terms by 57 percent since 1980. The use of herbicides to control weeds decreases the need for tilling soil, which in turn reduces soil erosion 50–98 percent.5
Disregarding such benefits, most of the key U.S. environmental regulatory statutes follow the lead of groups like Greenpeace, focusing on the elimination of chemicals without much regard to the dangers of not having these technologies. The Clean Water Act (1972), for example, made this unattainable pledge: “it is the national goal that the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985.” While we can meet reasonable clean-water goals, we can’t meet a zero discharge without forcibly halting industrial processes that bring us lifesaving medicines, a safe food supply packaged to resist spoilage, and even clothing.
Likewise, regulations that the EPA issued under the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974) actually set zero as the goal for certain chemical contaminants in drinking water—something that is virtually impossible and totally unnecessary for public-health purposes. With such goals, drinking-water standards for chemicals are extremely stringent. For example, one standard for a contaminant demands that drinking water not contain any more than 0.03 parts per trillion. The high costs of such onerous standards mean that financial resources are diverted from other more essential needs.
The Manmade Cancer Myth
Writing in the Journal of Clinical Oncology last year, researchers from the University of Alabama Schools of Medicine and Public Health noted that “A typical commentary blamed ‘increasing cancer rates’ on ‘exposure to industrial chemicals and run-away modern technologies whose explosive growth had clearly outpaced the ability of society to control them.’”6 But their research finds: “There is no denying the existence of environmental problems, but the present data show that they produced no striking increase in cancer mortality.” They conclude: “When the mortality from all smoking-related cancers is excluded, the decline in other cancer from 1950 to 1998 was 31 percent (from 109 to 75 deaths per 100,00 person years).” Hence the increase in cancer at that time was not related to the use of synthetic chemicals or pollution, but to personal lifestyle choices.
The most recent report from the National Cancer Institute confirms that: “Cancer incidence for all sites combined decreased from 1992 through 1998 among all persons in the United States, primarily because of a decline of 2.9 percent per year in white males and 3.1 percent per year in black males. Among females, cancer incidence rates increased 0.3 percent per year. Overall, cancer death rates declined 1.1 percent per year.”7 Cancer among women increased slightly only because of better detection, which is good news because it means doctors are finding and curing more cancers among women.
In their landmark 1981 study of the issue, Sir Richard Doll and Richard Peto set out to determine the causes of preventable cancer in the United States.8 According to Doll and Peto, pollution only accounts for 2 percent of all cancer cases. They do note that 80 to 90 percent of cancers are caused by “environmental factors.” But while activists often trumpet this figure as evidence that industrial society is causing cancer, Doll and Peto explain that “environmental factors” simply means factors other than genetics. It does not mean pollution alone. Environmental factors include smoking, diet, occupational exposure to chemicals, “geophysical factors” such as naturally occurring radiation, manmade radiation, medical drugs and radiation, and pollution. Tobacco use accounts for about 30 percent of all annual cancer deaths, and dietary choices account for 35 percent of annual cancer deaths.
With so few cancers caused by pollution, how many could environmental regulation eliminate? With each regulation the EPA claims to save thousands from dying from cancer. Together, these would likely add up into the millions. But scientist Michael Gough demonstrates why we should consider such EPA claims suspect.
Gough analyzed the findings of the Doll-Peto study along with estimates of cancer risks in the EPA’s report Unfinished Business. He came to conclusions similar to that of Doll and Peto. Gough noted that between 2 and 3 percent of all cancers could be associated with environmental pollution. Determining such numbers helps us understand what exactly the EPA can expect to accomplish when regulating pollutants. Gough says that EPA action could only address a small percentage of cancers: “If the EPA risk assessment techniques are accurate, and all identified carcinogens amenable to EPA regulations were completely controlled, about 6,400 cancer deaths annually (about 1.3% of the current annual total of 435,000 cancer deaths) would be prevented. When cancer risks are estimated using the more realistic method employed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the number of regulatable cancers is smaller, about 1,400 (about 0.25%).”9
Faulty Rodent Tests
Given these realities, how does the EPA justify its claims? Many of the findings on
chemicals and cancer relate to faulty tests that entail administering massive amounts of chemicals to rodents bred to be highly susceptible to cancer. Then researchers extrapolate the possible effects of such chemicals on humans, who may be exposed to small amounts of the same chemical during their lives.
We should ask: Why are the impacts on rodents relevant to humans? Doll and Peto note that some chemicals found to be carcinogenic in humans have not produced cancerous tumors in rodents. In fact, for many years, cigarette smoke failed to produce malignant tumors in laboratory animals although tobacco is a leading cause of cancer in the United States. These discordant effects of chemicals in animals and humans underline the difficulty of relying on animal results to estimate human risks.
Moreover, Bruce Ames and Lois Swirsky Gold demonstrate why we need not be concerned about low-level exposure to “rodent carcinogens.”10 They found that such chemicals pose no more of a risk than that posed by many natural, unregulated substances that are common and accepted parts of a healthy diet. While 212 of 350 of the synthetic chemicals examined by various agencies were found to be carcinogenic at the massive doses given to rodents, 37 out of 77 of the natural substances tested were also found carcinogenic in rodent studies employing the same methodology. The average intake of natural rodent carcinogens in plant foods is about 1,500 mg per person each day, while the average intake of manmade pesticides is .09 mg per day.11 Natural rodent carcinogens exist in apples, bananas, carrots, celery, coffee, lettuce, orange juice, peas, potatoes, and tomatoes at levels thousands of times greater than exposures found in drinking water.12
The free use and development of chemicals have proven a key to human progress, and ill effects on health from low-level exposures are small, if detectable at all. Continued progress demands the continuation of an unfettered marketplace in which firms can develop new products without having to meet an impossible or nearly impossible zero-risk standard. Such allegedly more “precautionary” approaches of the environmental activists actually risk a return to the world of Thomas Hobbes.
1. Michael J. LaNier, “Historical Development of Municipal Water Systems in the United States, 1776 to 1976,” Journal of the American Water Works Association, April 1976, p. 177.
2. Frank J. Palella et al., “Declining Morbidity and Mortality among Patients with Advanced HIV Infection,” The New England Journal of Medicine, March 26, 1998.
3. M.G. Hunink et al., “The Recent Decline in Mortality From Coronary Heart Disease, 1980–1990,” Journal of the American Medical Association, February 19, 1997, pp. 535–42.
4. Bill Durodie, “Poisonous Propaganda: Global Echoes of an Anti-Vinyl Agenda” (Washington, D.C.: Competitive Enterprise Institute, July 2000).
5. Dennis Avery, “Saving the Planet with Pesticides,” in Ronald Bailey, ed., The True State of the Planet (New York: Free Press, 1995), pp. 52–54.
6. Brad Rodu and Philip Cole, “The Fifty-Year Decline of Cancer in America,” Journal of Clinical Oncology, January 1, 2001, pp. 239–41.
7. Holly L. Howe et al., “Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer (1973 through 1998), Featuring Cancers with Recent Increasing Trends,” Journal of the National Cancer Institute, June 6, 2001, pp. 824–42.
8. Richard Doll and Richard Peto, “The Causes of Cancer: Quantitative Estimates of Avoidable Risks of Cancer in the United States Today,” Journal of the National Cancer Institute, June 1981.
9. Michael Gough, “How Much Cancer Can EPA Regulate Away?” Risk Analysis 10, no. 1 (1990), pp. 1–6; and Michael Gough, “Estimating Cancer Mortality,” Environmental Science and Technology 23, no. 8 (1989), pp. 925–30.
10. Bruce Ames and Lois Swirsky Gold, “Too Many Rodent Carcinogens: Mitogenesis Increases Mutagenesis,” Science,
August 31, 1990, p. 970.
12. National Research Council, Committee on Comparative Toxicology of Naturally Occurring Carcinogens, Carcinogens and Anticarcinogens in the Human Diet: A Comparison of Naturally Occurring and Synthetic Substances (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1996), Appendix A.