This spring Congress took a hard, critical look at the Internal Revenue Service, an agency which stood accused of being arrogant, unaccountable, or in the words of Arkansas Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson, "out of control."
Having moved toward taming that regulatory beast, Congress should now turn its attention to the unjustified punitive actions of another Beltway behemoth; the Environmental Protection Agency.
EPA's current assault on General Electric over trace levels of PCBs in the Hudson River is a perfect example of how EPA uses hyperbole about risk to threaten corporations into making daunting expenditures - which are passed on to us consumers in the form of higher prices.
EPA Administrator Carol Browner asserts that: (a) there are "hot spots" of PCBs in the Hudson River, once buried in sludge but now dispersing into the water; (b) that these chemicals "probably cause cancer in people" and represent "a serious threat to public health" and (c) despite the fact that the PCBs if left alone would gradually dissipate, that it is GE's responsibility to remove every last trace of these allegedly harmful chemicals at an estimated cost of $50 million to $100 million plus an unknown additional amount to compensate those for whom the river is a source of income.
Mrs. Browner is now threatening to declare a PCB "health emergency" which, freely translated, means that if GE does not immediately comply, EPA would do the job and bill GE triple costs.
Rhetoric about "cancer causing agents" gives Mrs. Browner the immediate edge on popular opinion as to the necessity of her proposed action, but the facts point in the opposite direction:
- PCBs were used widely and legally from 1929 to 1977, and performed a life and health enhancing role. They replaced combustible mineral-oil insulating fluids and thereby reduced the risk of fires. The disposal procedures used by GE were government sanctioned and legal.
- In the 1970s, when it became apparent that PCBs degraded very slowly in the environment and were detected in soil and water, environmentalists agitated for a ban on their use. While acknowledging no health risks, the manufacturers of PCBs voluntarily ceased production completely in 1977, and the EPA for good measure banned them in 1979.
- PCBs cause acute and chronic effects, including increased cancer risks in some laboratory animals -but only at very high exposures. Studies of workers - human beings - exposed by inhalation and skin contact to high doses of PCBs in occupational settings over long periods report eye and skin irritation but do not reveal an increased risk of cancer.
- While a whole litany of medical complaints have been lodged against PCB, including increased risks of neurodevelopmental problems, lowered IQ, ands so-called "endocrine disruption," there is no credible evidence involving human observations to back up these claims - even among people who have eaten fish with measurable levels of PCBs.
- What is lost in this highly emotional discussion is the concept of dose. The levels of PCB in the Hudson are measured in the parts per million. By means of comparison, this is on the level of one drop of gasoline in a 30 gallon tank of gas. Even if PCBs at high levels in the workplace caused human cancer (which they do not), trace levels of exposure in the water or in fish taken from the river should not be legitimately labeled a cancer threat.
In assessing the quality of EPA science, Congress should seek second opinions from the nation's leading cancer experts, both at the National Cancer Institute and in academia.
A number of EPA officials I have spoken with have argued that we have more to fear from EPA fearmongering than from PCBs buried in river sediment, noting there are endless things we could do to protect health if cost were no matter, such as building shields to protect us against meteorites. Congress should give EPA the same spanking it gave the IRS.
Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health in New York City.
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