The Week That Was February 16-22, 1998

An e-mail update from The Science & Environmental Policy Project

Bad science all around.

First the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council announced at a February 19 press conference that residential exposure to radon was responsible for 18,000 lung cancer deaths each year, 90 percent among smokers (Does this let the Tobacco Institute off the hook?). Having spent four years and God knows how much in tax dollars, however, all they came up with was the same old, same old. Same old high-level exposures (among uranium miners) extrapolated to low-level risk (in households). To use an analogy, if drinking a gallon of alcohol will kill you, then, according to the NRC, so will the same amount distributed over a year at one swallow a week.

They also assumed no threshold for radon exposure, below which there is no risk. This assumption has been thoroughly discredited, not only for radon and other types of radiation exposure but also for toxic chemicals. For the NRC to ignore this has a potential impact on the clean-up of laboratory wastes, mill and mine tailings, and other low-level disposal sites--clean-ups that are pushed by the EPA way out of line with any cost-benefit justification.

In claiming that there is no "safe" level of exposure, the NRC Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR) panel blithely dismissed the work of Dr. Bernard Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh, whose painstaking research on the incidence of lung cancer in households found that lung cancer rates are consistently lowest in areas where radon levels are highest. Nor did they address the fact that EPA estimates greatly exaggerated lung cancer deaths in midwest states with the most radon exposure, and that actual deaths fell far short of the estimates.

So what's going on? The BEIR panel has become a self-perpetuating group representing a particular viewpoint on radiation. Its deliberations are carried on in secret. Its report and the underlying data, which were central to the Feb. 19 press conference, will not be seen for several months--a common but deplorable practice that fends off criticism of the research methodology until costly remediation policies are in the works.

The NRC study was funded largely by the Environmental Protection Agency, which not surprisingly said that it "fully supports [previous] EPA estimates" of lung cancer deaths. But praise from another activist beneficiary of EPA funding, the American Lung Association, perhaps points to a more chilling agenda. Among the NRC's conclusions: much of the risk from radon could be eliminated if people stopped smoking in their homes. Ah, the health Nazis march on.

More toad talk. The New Scientist, a London-based publication, reports that Swiss scientists have shown that a chemical present in fungicides kills and deforms several species of tadpoles, even in very low concentrations. Heinz-Ulrich Reyer, lead researcher of the study, said the chemical damage could drive local frog populations to extinction. Tim Hallidy, international director for the World Conservation Union, expressed caution, however. (So would we.) The chemical could account for local declines, he said, but it did not explain why frog populations diminished in pristine areas [emphasis ours]. Good question. One that raises doubts about the fungicide hypothesis.

Kudos to Michael Gough, Director of Science and Risk Studies at the Cato Institute, who took apart Andrew Blaustein's "salamanders deformed by UV-B" study in the Feb. 15 Washington Times. Gough pointed out that Blaustein selected a type of salamander highly sensitive to DNA damage from UV (ditto its eggs), which is why it lives and lays its eggs in dark places. Blaustein then stuck the salamander eggs out in the sun and, by golly, big problems! In effect, Blaustein tried to play up a putative increase in surface ultraviolet radiation by hitting salamanders with a brick. (Wham! UV! Wham! UV!) Bricks don't often occur in nature, but they're increasingly turning up in scientific research, especially research linked to some "global" problem. For those interested, the National Science Foundation put up the money for this study.

Of course, the day after Gough's article appeared, Blaustein and his colleague, Joseph Kiesecker of Yale University, presented their salamander research to great acclaim at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Philadelphia. Said Kiesecker to the duly attentive members of the press: "The recent thinning of the protective ozone layer in the upper atmosphere has been linked to increased risks of skin cancer and cataracts in humans as well as to the destruction of fragile plant life."

Actually, no. It has been posited, theorized, estimated, etc, it has never been "linked." An increasing trend of UV-B radiation at the Earth's surface has never been measured. Also, plants thrive in Florida, where UV-B intensity is some 200 percent greater than in northern latitudes, say New York. (Don't tell reporters; it will only confuse them.)

>From bad science to bureaucratic boondoggles: In Fort Worth, Texas, the same mindless grab for federal cash that last year brought us a $1 million, "environmentally friendly" public toilet in Yellowstone National Park, is about to bring us the first "green" U.S. Post Office, preventing pollution by using recycled materials, energy efficient systems, and natural irrigation and vegetation. (Funny. We never noticed plastic plants in front of the old post offices.)

The U.S. Postal Service, which builds 500-700 new postal facilities each year, now describes itself as "an environmental leader," actively promoting "environmental ownership and responsibility with suppliers, vendors, contractors, and customers." And here we thought the Postal Service was actually going to turn a profit and deliver the mail.

In truth, what's going on at the Postal Service, and the Park Service, is merely indicative of the who controls the purse strings in this Administration. Virtually every federal agency is now trying to pad its budget with "eco-friendly" programs. Four years ago we learned that the U.S. Department of Defense was floating a $1 million budget proposal to retrofit the guidance system of the Peacekeeper missile, claiming that in flight the missile emitted a substance thought to damage the ozone layer. Of course, the Peacekeeper is test-fired just four times a year and would emit significant amounts of this substance only in a massive missile strike--at which time one assumes there would be other, more urgent concerns. No matter, green is in, logic is out--even at Defense.

Wrapping up, Environment Writer reports that sometime columnist and long-time activist Edward Flattau has a new book out, inspired by his "personal resentment" of those who would tempt "Americans to take less seriously threats to the future quality of our daily lives," i.e., Alar, radon, dioxin, global warming, ozone depletion, olive oil, tap water, etc. Basically a descent into vituperative screed, Flattau contends in Tracking the Charlatans that eco-bashers are everywhere, singling out for special scorn syndicated columnist Tony Snow, former New York Times reporter Keith Schneider, and U.S. News & World Report editor and author Gregg Easterbrook.

Just a few years ago, Flattau's environmental advocacy columns were syndicated by Gannett and appeared in 100 or more dailies. Alas, fond as he is of phrases like "abject contempt," "dangerous misinformation," and "antienvironmentalist tirades," the widely read Gannett columns are no more. Flattau now publishes in fewer than a dozen newspapers, and even his book is self-published. That may be the real source of his unhappiness. But we're taking no chances. We've put the dogs out and plan to x-ray all packages.

The crisis continues...

TW2 is compiled by SEPP Research Associate Candace Crandall.

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