All Commentary
Thursday, July 1, 1971

Pollution Paranoia

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!

Solar Pollution

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.

Too bad.

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.