(of Canada)

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 thought,
says Michael LeGault

Michael LeGault
National Post

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 scares follow.


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 best.

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.


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.


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.


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 with science.


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.


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.


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.


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."


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 to fathom.

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.


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 climate policy.

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.