An editorial, slightly condensed, from the May, 1971, issue of ANALOG: Copyright © 1971 by the Conde Nast Publications, Inc.
Someone writing a letter to Chemical & Engineering News came up with a definition of three kinds of pollution—"actual, political, and hysterical." The gentleman is obviously correct.
The extent of the hysterical class of pollution has made the subject of immense emotive force leading to almost unlimited political pollution. The vote-getting publicity-achieving possibilities lead to the Instant Authority syndrome in hundreds of would-be-important nonentities.
And that is a major disaster; there is real pollution, and curing it becomes enormously harder because of the wolf-crying about unreal pollution. Energies are diverted from real problems to unreal and meaningless pseudo-problems.
The latest example of hysterical pollution was the recent hoorah set off by discovering mercury in canned tuna fish. A certain fact was demonstrated: canned tuna fish contained quantities of mercury up to and beyond the Federally allowable limits set by the Food & Drug Administration. (The FDA, of course, has been known to go off half-cocked before this.) This fact was immediately widely publicized, and thousands of dollars worth of canned tuna were declared toxic, forcing canners to recall their product, food merchant operations to go into high-speed reverse, and worrying people all over the country.
And, of course, increasing the political pollution about those awful, wicked, selfish, uncaring manufacturers who knowingly dump their poisonous wastes in our seas. The problem of pollution is a problem which demands some very honest witnesses—and a recognition of that fundamental law of the Universe: You cannot get something for nothing.
There Is a Cost and It May Be Disaster
In the effort to solve pollution problems, a second fundamental law of reality must be recognized; you can get what you want if you can pay the necessary cost—but you will pay that cost, like it or not, willy-nilly, if you try to take what you want. And the cost may bankrupt you—and the bankruptcy penalty imposed by the Universe is Disaster. A great and arrogant star, burning its hydrogen fuel profligately at 10,000 times Sol’s rate, can shine bold and dominant for a while; bankruptcy in this case is called "a supernova explosion." It leaves a shriveled remnant ten or so miles in diameter called a neutron star, a shrunken corpse rapidly cooling into cold death.
You can’t get something for nothing.
You can get what you want provided you can pay for it in the Universe’s terms of time and energy; if you can’t pay the fee, Disaster collects.
Therefore, it’s essential that judgment be used; you’ve got to balance the cost and the gain, and forsake the hope you’ll get it for nothing.
The elephant’s immense size and strength means he need not fear lions, tigers, or other carnivores—but it also means he cannot cross a six-foot deep ditch, because of that size. He can’t stand a six-foot drop, and if the ditch is wider than he can stride across—he’s helpless.
A mouse, on the other hand, can stand an unlimited fall—a fall from 20,000 feet wouldn’t damage him appreciably. His small size and weight mean that air resistance to his fall will allow him to land at a speed within the shock-absorption capability of his bones and muscles. Of course, he does have trouble with owls in the air, and cats when he lands.
You pay for what you get, in other words.
And if you don’t use judgment, the payment is almost certain to be Disaster.
But the essence of judgment is to balance all the factors—not just the ones you like. You must get both sides of the question, or all sides, for many times there are far more than two factors.
Mercury in Tuna
The FDA and the political polluters joined in with the hysterical polluters on that mercury-in-tuna business without making even a half-hearted effort to get the full story before blasting off in all directions.
The thing looked decidedly fishy to me from the start—and I don’t mean just tuna-fishy. Item: mercury has been used in medicines for centuries. Item: sodium cyanide is terrifically deadly, and this does not mean that sodium is poisonous. Item: methyl mercury, it has recently been discovered, is highly toxic, and is produced by living bacteria in contact with metallic mercury. Item: there is, and always has been, mercury in seawater—and it’s known that mercuric chloride is highly toxic. With some 35,000,000 tons of mercury in the sea, and the sea full of chloride, the sea remains "the mother of life."
Just because mercury is in tuna does not automatically mean that it must be toxic; there’s sodium in tuna, too, and as I say, sodium cyanide is terribly poisonous. I’ll even go further; sodium cyanide is made up of sodium, carbon, and nitrogen, and they’re all in your tuna-fish salad sandwich!
Perhaps the most familiar mercury medication is Mercurochrome—which has been used as a systemic antiseptic by direct injection into the bloodstream. Mercurous chloride—ous not ic!—has been taken by mouth as a remedy for many centuries. Lord know show many doses of mercury metal have been swallowed by children who chewed on the familiar fever thermometers.
It just didn’t seem that that report of 50 parts per million of mercury in tuna was all that devastating….
So, after a few weeks of study and research, the boys finally got around to the conclusion that they’d really goofed high, wide, and handsome.
Tuna fish naturally contains from 10 to 100 parts of mercury per million—and always has. Studies of tuna canned forty-five years ago showed the same level of mercury. Study of a preserved, dehydrated tuna from a museum collection, known to be about seventy years old, showed the same level.
An organism that lives at the top end of a food chain, with all its food base swimming in a sea containing mercury, tends to accumulate some of the mercury. If it couldn’t handle that much mercury, it wouldn’t have evolved to sit on top of that food chain. The tuna is way, way up on the food chain; he gets into our cans because we’re one step higher!
That tuna-fish scare is a Grade A #1 example of political and hysterical pollution taking off when there was no actual pollution.
For the planet Earth, mercury in the environment is normal-natural.
That does not deny that excessive local concentrations of mercury are being caused by certain industrial wastes.
However, let’s be a little judicious, and stay alive longer. Men of good will pulled a major boner in screaming "Pollution!" when they found that tuna contained mercury; men of equally good will—and equally blank ignorance—pulled an exactly similar ignorant-boner by dumping metallic mercury in streams and lakes and saying, "No pollution."
They had no information that the mercury could be dangerous; metallic mercury is quite inert, not exceedingly toxic, and according to all then-known scientific data, would simply sink harmlessly into the mud.
The industrial polluters were no more guilty of their ignorance than the FDA was guilty of ignorance in their screams of "Pollution!" in the tuna. And… no less guilty.
They’re Called Volcanoes
The greatest trouble with the pollution problem is recognizing the basic laws of nothing-for nothing, and you-can-if-you accept-a-cost.
Consider the matter of sulfur dioxide pollution.
Sulfur dioxide is poured into the Earth’s atmosphere by the cubic mile, in stupendous quantities. It is being dumped into the atmosphere, and the thing we must remember and weigh is that it always has been—from chimneys thousands of feet high, and miles in diameter. They’re called volcanoes. Belching out of these immense throats come vast quantities of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and the even more poisonous hydrogen sulfide. And I don’t mean dribbles—I mean quantities on a planetary, not a mere industrial scale!
Every living organism is absolutely dependent on sulfur in its metabolism; most of your proteins depend on sulfur-bond cross-link-ages to hold them in shape. Quite literally, a little sulfur’s good for a man!
But anything in excess is poisonous—including oxygen, nitrogen, water, sugar, salt—anything. Sugar and salt are used for preserving foods, because in concentration they kill almost all living cells. And no organism can live without them.
Balance and judgment are required—and what we get in the current political and hysterical pollution is imbalance and insanity. Actual pollution is lost sight of, and practical balances that could be achieved are being made impossible by the hysterical demands of absolute elimination. You want pure water to drink? O.K., friend—try the flavor of laboratory standard pure water, "conductivity water" so pure that it is an insulator.
You don’t want pure water; you want a reasonable amount of flavoring substances added—some air, carbon dioxide, various salts and minerals—the kind of water your species evolved on!
Let’s consider a Perfect Power Plant. Ideally, it would burn no fuel whatever, deliver power of the type we want directly, have no exhaust whatever, weigh nothing, and occupy no space.
You want to wait for it?
Well, how about a power plant that delivers immense quantities of power, causes no sulfur, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, or hydrocarbon pollution, and requires no attention but simply sends out its floods of power unceasingly, while we don’t have to supply any fuel to keep it going?
That one’s available right now. It’s called the Sun, and isn’t very portable, and does cause a great deal of radiation pollution—it keeps throwing out X rays, cosmic rays, high-energy particle radiation, and lethal photons of ultraviolet. The shielding we have is inadequate; the ultraviolet that leaks through is known to cause considerable cancer, and the particle radiation is also known to cause thousands of mutations and cancers, and to produce aging effects in human beings.
So we really ought to do something about that pollution, and order the Sun turned off? Moreover, the Earth itself has been very badly constructed; many of the atoms it’s built of—potassium, thorium, and uranium in the common granites, for instance, and in seawater—are poorly constructed and keep falling apart. They give off lethal radiation, and the heavier ones keep contaminating the air with an exceedingly toxic gas, radon, which, on being inhaled, causes radiation damage inside the body.
People living on the Colorado Plateau get a considerable dosage from the uranium and thorium deposits in the local rocks; they should force the Original Constructor of the place to replace the defective atoms with good ones, maybe?
Let’s get really hysterical about this pollution business and throw all judgment out, and demand absolute perfection, and see what sort of system we wind up with, shall we?
Now we can’t tolerate the mining and burning of coal, because coal contains radioactive material that’s been safely buried away under thick rock. When it’s mined and burned, it releases radioactive materials into our air, water, and ground. And because everybody knows radioactivity is terribly dangerous, we’ll enact laws to stop that poisoning of our environment.
Then since oil and gas release hydrocarbons into the air and water, and those produce smog which is very toxic, we’ll have to stop all use of those dangerous, polluting materials.
Of course we can’t have nuclear power plants; everybody knows radioactivity causes cancer and mutations, and we can’t have that.
And we’ll just have to do something about the radiation pollution the Sun is causing, and cut off those carcinogenic ultraviolet rays.
So move the Earth into intergalactic space—and drop dead. You can’t take the hazards of life.
One antiradiation hysteric fanatic—he has a degree in science, which means he knows facts, but evidently doesn’t use much judgment—says the present AEC standards of permissible radiation from nuclear power plants would cause some tens of thousands of added mutation deaths per year in the United States.
I doubt his figures, to begin with; nobody knows enough to make any such guesses. Dr. Hermann Muller, the Nobel medalist in genetics, given for his studies of radiation-induced mutations, was deeply concerned about radioactive mutations because, while the total organism can tolerate some radiation, and make repairs, he was sure that when radiation damaged a gene, there would, necessarily, be a mutation—that genetic cells could tolerate no damage from radiation; that, therefore, the only permissible radiation dosage for genetic cells would have to be zero.
That was his position just after WW II, when the atomic problems were just being studied—and before the RNA-DNA chemistry of genes was discovered.
We now know that genes have built-in self-repair kits, and can very rapidly and neatly repair damage to the genes caused by radiation or other disruptive forces—within limits, of course! What those limits are, we don’t know—and the bird who comes out with figures on how many mutations and cancers a given amount of radiation will cause has no more solid data than Dr. Muller had. The "reasonable level of radiation" obviously must be greater than zero—there is self-repair. But nobody knows what it is, and we’re a long way from finding out.
Moreover, remember the second basic law—you can get what you want if you can pay the cost. We want electric power. The cost is not just so many dollars; it, like the automobile, will have a cost in terms of human lives. And don’t think you can escape it. Even the Sun takes a toll in lives, with its radiations causing deaths, mutations, and cancers. (And deaths by exposure to its heat, too.)
Let’s assume that the wild-guess figure of 30,000 deaths, mutations, et cetera, a year resulted from widespread use of nuclear power plants. (That’s a wild assumption, completely unprovable, and almost certainly wrong—but assume it for discussion.)
Compare those 30,000 deaths and maimings per year with the life-cost per year of the automobile. And the way things are going, it’s evident that we hold that the mobility that the automobile gives us would be cheap at twice the price; the death rate is rising, and yet no one says anything about banning the use of the deadly machines.
Of course, the automobile is the principal cause of death by smog, too. There’s great to-do about antipollution devices to attach to the car—but nobody is proposing laws that end the problem once and completely by banning the automobile.
With respect to the automobile, in other words, there is none of the hysterical absolutistic, all-one sided solution of "Ban the car!"
But the hysterical and political pollution on the "Ban the power plant!" is going great guns.
Of course, we demand our full quota of electric power; we just want them to give it to us from a power plant that produces no pollution whatever, and we want it now.
Even God’s design of power plant gives off radiation leakage.
May I suggest that we’ll get a lot better results if we accept that the Universe gives nothing for nothing, and that there will be a cost for every worthwhile thing.
That there is no such thing as a Perfect Solution, and the use of good judgment and design are an Optimum Engineering Compromise.
As of right now, there is a lot of far-from-optimum design in use; it can be cleaned up and damned well has to be before we start paying the bankruptcy price the Universe charges those who don’t acknowledge their bills. Disastrous Collapse.
But we can not solve the actual pollution problem with either political or hysterical pollution.
It calls for judgment—not paranoia on the subject.