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Monday, July 1, 1996

An Endless Series of Hobgoblins: The Science and Politics of Environmental Health Scares

How Dangerous Are Alar, Abestos, and Dioxin?

Dr. Nelson is professor of environmental policy at the School of Public Affairs of the University of Maryland and senior fellow of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

The idea of the scientific professional emerged in the progressive era around the beginning of this century. There should be a clear boundary, the founders of scientific professions said, between science and politics. Ever since, most scientists have believed, their role is to do careful research, publish it in scientific journals, and leave to others the dissemination of the results for decision-making purposes in government. Indeed, a scientist who was perceived as a “lobbyist” or “publicist” risked the disapproval of his or her professional colleagues.

Like so many other features of the progressive design, this separation of science and politics has not worked. When mainstream scientists refuse to assume active leadership roles, it leaves a vacuum that all-too-often is filled with all manner of hucksters and zealots. Those scientists who do speak out are often those with the strongest ideological blinders, while mainstream scientists are content to do research, publish in academic journals, and leave to others the dissemination of the results in the public arena. The end result, unfortunately, becomes “science by press release,” leaving much of the public confused and poorly informed about many matters of vital importance to public health and welfare.

It thus is welcome that James J. Worman, professor of chemistry at Dartmouth College, has decided to review the current state of scientific thinking on several recent controversies in environmental policy. With his co-author, Eric Hagen, they report on three substances: Alar, asbestos, and dioxin.

Alar is a chemical available since the 1960s for preserving apples for longer periods, aiding in their marketing. In the early 1980s studies of mice fed massive doses of Alar showed cancer tumors. Based on these studies, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1985 proposed a ban. However, EPA was forced to cancel this action when the agency’s own Scientific Advisory Panel challenged the scientific validity of the earlier studies. Although new studies were done, they had many of the same problems. For example, the doses of Alar were so high that most mice died prematurely. As a result, it was impossible to say whether resulting cancers were due to general toxic effects of the Alar on the immune system, or were actually due to some cancer-causing characteristic of Alar.

Complicating matters, in rats Alar did not produce cancer at any dose. Moreover, when the dose for mice was cut in half—and was still equal to the equivalent of a person eating 14,000 pounds of apples per day for 70 years—no cancers showed up. By 1989 a United Nations panel including experts from most industrialized nations concluded that Alar was “not oncogenic [cancer-causing] in mice” and recommended Alar for use within an “acceptable daily limit.”

Nevertheless, pressured by environmental crusaders, in 1989 EPA again proposed a ban. This was not enough for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), however. Taking matters into its own hands, NRDC enlisted actress Meryl Streep and the CBS television program 60 Minutes to warn Americans that they should not eat apples. The resulting mass hysteria virtually wiped out apple sales for a time in some parts of the United States—and also eventually caused the removal of Alar from the market. In its national publicity campaign, NRDC asserted that Alar posed a risk 25 times greater than even EPA considered to be the case.

Furthermore, lost in all the controversy was fact that 95 percent of apples were not receiving any application of Alar at all. Editor Daniel Koshland of Science magazine was moved by the whole sorry episode to protest the use of “scare of the week” tactics and to warn the public that fund-raising and other incentives meant that “public interest groups have conflicts of interest, just as do business groups.”

An Endless Series of Hobgoblins tells similarly depressing stories for asbestos and dioxin. It has been known for many years that exposure to significant concentrations of airborne asbestos fibers, most likely to happen in the workplace, causes cancer and other lung disease. Although the effects of much smaller exposures are still not known, many uses of asbestos were tightly controlled in the 1970s. Then, in the 1980s, attention turned to the lingering effects of past use of asbestos. Under pressure from the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, and other groups, Congress in 1986 enacted the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act.

Although the Act did not directly require it, the very fact of its passage and other alarmist statements stirred exaggerated public fears, resulting in many school districts across the nation acting to remove any remaining asbestos in the walls and other parts of schools. Staggering costs—nationwide in the several billions of dollars per year—were incurred, often by financially strapped school systems. Yet, by 1991 EPA was stating that “removal is often not a school district’s or other building owners’ best course of action.” Indeed, the removal process itself frequently left greater asbestos residues in the air—which would not disappear for many years—than had previously existed. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) projected seven casualties per 1,000 asbestos removal workers, likely to cause more total deaths among the workers than would be averted by the asbestos removal itself.

Dioxin is a chemical that is highly toxic for many animals. Yet, its impacts vary greatly from one animal to another; a guinea pig is 5,000 times as susceptible to dioxin as a hamster. Inadvertent experiments due to accidental releases of dioxin suggest that human beings may be among those species facing lesser risk, or even no risk. In the aftermath of an industrial accident in Seveso, Italy, in 1976 that dumped very large quantities of dioxin over the area, only 200 cases of chloracne have ever been definitively linked to this event. To be sure, the facts to the contrary did not inhibit Newsweek magazine in 1982 from reporting that there had been a large increase in birth defects.

Researchers have failed to find scientifically verifiable connections between cancer and exposure to Agent Orange (another dioxin) in Vietnam, even though the U.S. government agreed to distribute $180 million to those exposed. Vernon Houk, the government official responsible in 1983 for the dioxin evacuation of Times Beach, Missouri, in 1991 stated that he considered his own past decision a mistake. The controversy, to be sure, is continuing. Acknowledging that some past fears have not proven out, EPA still maintains that dioxin is a probable carcinogen. At the same time, leading scientists have concluded that “studies on dioxin have failed to produce any conclusive evidence that dioxin is a human carcinogen.”

These events are familiar to many of those who follow U.S. environmental policy closely. Hagen and Worman do not break new ground, but they do provide well written summaries accessible to a general audience. An Endless Series of Hobgoblins adds to the rapidly mounting body of writings finding that this nation has wasted many tens of billions of dollars on minor or perhaps nonexistent risks. The public has been ill served on risk matters by government agencies, the media, environmental groups, and scientists too timid to speak out. It is to be hoped that more mainstream scientists will follow the example of this book in making their expertise on risk matters available for public benefit.