Thursday, December 30, 1999
The century of science scares
The age of science has also been the age of unfounded scares about health
and the environment that have cost billions and shaken our faith in rational
says Michael LeGault
The 20th century has been the century of the overcooked environmental/ health scare. Certainly, news of one impending
environmental crisis or another has been a dominant theme of global media coverage, especially in the past 40 years. Many
of these stories have more resembled works of the imagination than works of science. Others, while having a basis in fact,
have been exaggerated by activist groups with political agendas. The most imaginative and exaggerated of the century's
One billion became six billion in this century, fuelling anxiety that the dire predictions of 19th-century economist Thomas
Malthus were coming to pass. Malthus argued that, much like arctic lemmings, a rapidly increasing human population
would outstrip food supply and other resources, leading to a catastrophic crash, at worse, or declining living standards at
Human ingenuity, however, has proved remarkably un-lemminglike. Malthus did not anticipate the effects of the pill,
increasing equality of women, urbanization or technological enhancements of agricultural production. From 1938 to 1978,
the output of the United States' 17 most important food, feed and fibre crops increased by nearly 2 1/2 times, while
cultivated area increased only 3%.
The rate of population growth has also been slower than Malthus predicted, and is now generally in decline worldwide.
The UN projects Western Europe's population to decline after 2000. In the less developed world, the 1990 growth rate of
2% per year will be halved by 2025.
Because about 50% of today's world population is urban, compared with 29% in 1950, most enjoy better living standards
amid declining per-capita resource consumption and overall population density on most land areas. Lack of political
stability, education, democratic law and free markets, not high population, are the main obstacles to prudent resource use
and higher living standards in less developed countries.
WE'RE RUNNING OUT OF OIL
In 1973, oil cost about $2 (US) per barrel. By mid-1981, oil cost nearly 20 times that figure, prompting rationing, gas lines
and fears that world reserves would soon be depleted. Today's best guesses estimate 400 to 700 years of oil reserves, at
current consumption rates.
In 1951, the U.S. State Department estimated that global oil reserves would run dry by 1964. By 1990, known world oil
reserves had grown by 1,000%. These experiences simply demonstrate the principle that "proven reserves" of a given
resource are a function of price. Oil companies have little incentive to explore when the price for oil is low. Price also
determines the economics of energy development. At $40 (US) a barrel, for example, oil shale development could economically
provide another two trillion barrels of oil.
CANCER RATES ARE SOARING BECAUSE OF MAN-MADE POLLUTION AND TOXINS
According to U.S. National Cancer Institute data, the age-adjusted mortality rates for all cancers combined (except lung cancer) have been
declining since 1950 for all age groups except 85 and above. The largest declines have been for stomach (75%), cervical (73%), uterine
(60%) and rectal (60%) cancer.
Contrary to the environmentalists' long-running claims, cancer and genetic researchers now generally agree that cancer is fundamentally
a degenerative disease of old age. Cancer's strong genetic component predisposes some individuals toward increased risk of certain
types of cancer. As far as toxins in the environment, University of California at Berkeley biochemist Bruce Ames estimates that North
Americans ingest 10,000 times more natural pesticides found in fruits and vegetables than man-made pesticides.
ALAR, APPLES AND CHILDHOOD CANCER
The great apple scare of the century was launched on Feb. 26, 1989, when CBS beamed 60 Minutes into the living rooms of 40 million to
50 million people. With a skull and crossbones overlaying a red apple as a backdrop, Ed Bradley alleged that Alar, a chemical sprayed on
apples to keep them on the trees longer, presented a high cancer risk to humans, especially young children, which the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency had dangerously underestimated.
Apples and apple products were soon pulled from stores and banned from schools. Many years and millions of dollars in studies later,
Alar received a clean bill of health, as it had originally in 1968. Yet by then the damage had already been done to apple growers and to the
public's confidence in its food. Today, even scientists sympathetic to environmental causes admit the great apple scare had nothing to do
PLASTIC HARMS THE ENVIRONMENT AND HUMAN HEALTH
Sensing the economic and political vulnerability of a largely non-unionized industry whose feedstock is supplied by big oil companies,
environmental groups revved up an anti-plastic bandwagon, claiming plastic is everything from a landfill scourge to a toxic terror.
Life cycle studies have shown that plastic's total environmental impact, from extraction of raw material through production, is no worse
-- and in some cases better -- than other widely used materials, such as metal, glass and paper. Used in packaging, lightweight plastic
reduces weight, fuel use and emissions during shipping. Greater plastics use in cars and trucks (up 600% since the 1970s) lightened
vehicles and nearly doubled overall fuel efficiency since 1972.
PCB'S KILL RATS; THEREFORE, THEY MUST BE KILLING HUMANS
In the late 1960s, the safety of PCBs -- a chemical widely used in electrical equipment, machinery, paints and other products -- came
under suspicion after some Japanese who consumed PCB-contaminated rice oil became sick. U.S. Food and Drug Administration
scientists later found traces of PCBs in many foods, with the largest concentrations in fish. In 1973, an FDA regulation defined a
tolerable daily intake (TDI) of one-millionth of a gam (microgram) of PCB per kilogram of body weight per day. In 1975, a U. S. Public
Health Service study found that female rats fed 5,000 times the TDI of PCB every day for 21 months developed an increased number of
liver tumors. On the basis of this and other studies, the EPA required costly replacements of enclosed electrical equipment containing
even minute PCB amounts, setting a precedent: From then on, animal overdose studies would lead to costly environmental laws
providing no provable benefit to the environment or human health.
PASSIVE SMOKE CAUSES CANCER IN NON-SMOKERS
In 1992, a U.S. EPA report concluded that second-hand cigarette smoke caused around 3,000 deaths per year among nonsmokers. Swept
up by the hysteria, Canadian authorities forced cigarette manufacturers to inscribe "Passive Smoking Causes Cancer" on their packets and
many cities, such as Toronto, restricted smoking in public areas.
In July, 1998, a U. S. Federal Court decision nullified the EPA findings that had set off the scare, finding that the EPA
acted illegally and misrepresented claims that passive smoke causes lung cancer. In particular, the court found the EPA
never asked the basic scientific question: whether passive smoke represents a lung cancer risk. Instead, it manipulated its
own risk assessment methods, falsely claiming a meaningful statistical connection between passive smoke and lung cancer.
OVERHEAD POWER LINES ARE A HEALTH HAZARD
The possible health effects of electromagnetic radiation or fields near high-voltage power transmission lines have been
investigated for decades in North America and Europe. One Soviet study in the '60s alleged that linemen suffered reduced
sexual libido. Love Canal and the advent of environmental paranoia gave such junk science a new lease on life. A 1979
paper by an American psychologist linked child leukemia and power lines. The research was debunked as flawed. A 1988
New York State study found a possible link between electromagnetic fields and child leukemia. But as one of the
researchers put it, both the rarity of the disease and impossibility of finding an unexposed control group made the results
virtually meaningless. Nonetheless, in 1990 the EPA gave its blessing to this sort of pseudoscience by identifying "60 Hz
magnetic fields as a possible but not proven cause of cancer in humans."
KILLER TOMATOES AND GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOOD
Genetic engineering to create new strains of food crops and animal products is one of today's hot-button
environmental/health issues. Activists object to genetically modified food on ethical and scientific concerns. Both are hard
Humans have used selective breeding techniques for thousands of years to create genetically new plants and animals.
Apparently this sudden "ethical" scruple is related to the fact that many of these latest strains of genetically engineered
plants and animals are being made by large corporations.
Activists also cite a risk that a genetically changed organism, when released to the environment, could wreak unpredictable
havoc on the ecosystem, or perhaps even threaten the health of humans. Such a fear ignores the principles of evolution and
genetics. Scientists know that the vast majority of mutations that occur in plants and animals are flawed and eliminated
naturally. Additionally, food crops such as rice and corn, just like domestic animals, are products of genetic selection by
humans, and thus highly unlikely to have breeding success in the wild. None of these grains or animals has escaped
cultivation to spread in the wild.
CLIMATE CHANGE AND GREENHOUSE GAS WARMING
Before the Industrial Revolution, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was about 280 parts per million.
Today it is above 350 ppm. This rise in carbon dioxide, one of many so-called greenhouse, or heat-trapping gases in the
atmosphere, has led many scientists to predict an era of global warming and climate change, with disastrous consequences,
unless we reduce emissions from combustion of fossil fuels.
While the public frequently assumes global warming to be established scientific fact, a large part of the "evidence" for it
comes from computer simulations. For years the computers pegged the estimated average global temperature increase
range between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees Celsius, assuming a continued rise in greenhouse gas concentration. More recently,
models that include the effects of clouds and deep ocean currents predict an increase half as large.
The measured increase of 0.5 to 1.0 degree Celsius in the average global temperature in the past century still does not
exceed the average noise level of plus or minus 1 degree of natural climate variability. Further, some scientists have argued
that much of this increase may be due to heat-island effects created by expanding cities. Climate complexity will no doubt
continue to test the limits of science. Much is at stake, both economically and environmentally, in the course of future
The cost of these scares, though huge, extends far beyond economics. The hysteria has contributed to a century-long
decline in the value we once placed on objectivity, rational thought and human creativity. Yet there is a silver lining, too.
These stories have led the media to increase reporting of science generally, a trend that will no doubt enhance the public's
scientific literacy, and our ability to judge.
Michael LeGault is the editor of
Canadian Plastics, a Southam business publication.
Copyright Southam Inc. All rights reserved.