The Atrazine Scare Is Just the Beginning

Recently, I reported here on the environmentalists’ trumped-up scare campaign targeting atrazine, a valuable, widely used agricultural herbicide. I quoted a Wall Street Journal editorial that observed, “The environmental lobby also figures that if it can take down atrazine with its long record of clean health, it can get the EPA to prohibit anything.”


In fact, the attack on atrazine is just part of the total war against man-made chemicals that is waged today by environmentalists inside and outside of government.

On May 6, the President’s Cancer Panel fired the latest salvo in this battle, in the form of its annual report, Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now. The report follows in the scare-mongering tradition established by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a major green lobby. As I noted earlier, the NRDC’s 1989 pesticide report–citing bogus rodent experiments–fomented a nationwide panic over the chemical alar, abetted by media sympathizers. Last year, the group issued a similar faux “study” to gin up alarm over atrazine.

The presidential panel’s report similarly relies on “junk science” to reach alarmist conclusions, and was pre-released to reliably green journalists to maximize its visibility. Columnist Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times was one. In “New Alarm Bells About Chemicals and Cancer,” Kristof proclaimed that “the mission control of scientific and medical thinking, the President’s Cancer Panel” was “poised to join ranks with the organic food movement and declare: chemicals threaten our bodies.” Reuters likewise reported the story under the scary title, “Americans ‘Bombarded’ with Cancer Sources: Report.”

Yet, jarringly, the first sentence in the report’s cover letter to President Obama begins: “Though overall cancer incidence and mortality have continued to decline in recent years . . .”

How to reconcile this admission with the report’s frightening thesis: that the “American people–even before they are born–are being bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures”? If cancer-causing chemicals are widespread and increasing, why do overall cancer rates and deaths continue to fall?

To its credit, the New York Times highlighted strong criticism by the American Cancer Society leveled against the government report. ACS epidemiologist Dr. Michael Thun blasted the study as “unbalanced by its implication that pollution is the major cause of cancer,” and for claiming, without proof, that environmentally caused cancer cases are “grossly underestimated.”

In truth, says the ACS, only six percent of all U.S. cancers are related to “environmental causes”–four percent from occupational exposures and just two percent from all other settings. “Environmental causes” thus represent only a tiny fraction of the overall incidence of U.S. cancers, which are due overwhelmingly to non-environmental factors–mainly genetics and voluntary lifestyle choices.

“If we could get rid of tobacco, we could get rid of 30 percent of cancer deaths,” Dr. Thun said, adding that poor nutrition, obesity, and lack of exercise contribute far more to cancer susceptibility than do pollutants.

But that’s not the conclusion the presidential panel wants you to reach.

Throughout their report, weasel-words such as “may,” “can,” “possible,” “suggests,” and “suspected” proliferate. A rodent study “suggests” that Chemical X “may” be a “possible” carcinogen, or is “suspected” to disrupt endocrine, or is “linked to” genetic deformities. These ambiguities insinuate and inflate a sense of hazard, in the absence of hard evidence. Similarly, completely benign chemicals are labeled “contaminants,” “pollutants,” or “foreign substances,” suggesting an alien invasion of our bodies by deadly poisons. Chemicals are called “toxins” when they may be “toxic” only at extraordinarily high exposure levels, such as those administered to rodents in laboratory tests. Such experiments don’t remotely reflect the trivial, almost undetectable exposures that most of us experience in everyday life.

These manipulations reveal how the panel is captive to the radical-environmentalist worldview.

For example, in an early section on “Environmental Exposures Related to Modern Lifestyles,” it acknowledges that “conveniences of modern life . . . have made life easier for virtually all Americans.” But there’s a Dark Side to the Force of modernity: “Some of these conveniences, however, have come at a considerable price to the environment and human health, and the true health impact of others is unconfirmed.” That last word shows how the authors twist the absence of evidence into a reason for anxiety.

The “use of cell phones and other wireless technology,” we are told, “is of great concern.” But why? “At this time, there is no evidence to support a link between cell phone use and cancer,” the authors admit. “However,” research is “extremely limited.” And: “Similarly, current and potential harms from extremely low frequency radiation are unclear and require further study.” Limited? Potential? Unclear? Why does absence of any evidence of harm constitute reason to spread panic?

It’s clear why the panel’s report was labeled a “a scientific travesty” by the American Council on Science and Health. For, ironically, the greatest threat to public health would come from following the panel’s primary recommendation: “A precautionary, prevention-oriented approach should replace current reactionary approaches to environmental contaminants, in which human harm must be proven before action is taken to reduce or eliminate exposure.” This precautionary approach “should shift the burden of proving safety to manufacturers prior to new chemical approval,” as well as “in renewal applications.”

A chemical manufacturer thus would be treated as guilty of threatening harm until he proved himself and his product innocent. He’d be required to do the logically impossible: to “prove a negative” by refuting an empty assertion of “possible” harm, in the absence of any evidence. Non-evidence becomes “uncertainty,” suggesting a looming threat. Idle speculations are to have equal weight with facts.

Precisely because we have no case–say the precautionists–you’d better do what we say.

This precautionary approach would grant progressive politicians and green bureaucrats god-like powers to halt manufacture of any new substances, including medicines, agricultural chemicals, fuels, alloys–you name it. This would strangle many vital new products in their cribs, posing far greater risks to our health. Had the precautionary principle been in place decades ago, many life-saving medicines and technologies never would have been allowed. For example, penicillin has saved countless lives. But penicillin and other antibiotics are highly toxic to guinea pigs. If the “precautionary principle” had been the rule when these antibiotics were first under study, the government never would have allowed them to become available–and over the ensuing decades, that decision would have cost the lives of thousands, perhaps millions suffering from infections.

Likewise, if the precautionary principle is enacted–as the panel proposes–we won’t have many of the agricultural chemicals that dramatically improve crop yields and spare billions from hunger or starvation. We won’t have pesticides that check deadly epidemics spread by filthy vermin. There’s another irony: Less healthy and well-fed, we might become susceptible to increased cancer risks. How else to explain why, in a world full of these allegedly perilous chemicals, cancer rates are plunging and life expectancy increasing?

All products carry risks, and we manage them by making common-sense trade-offs. We treat diseases with medicines, even though they may pose a slight chance of allergic reactions in some people, because the diseases are a far greater risk to our health. Similarly, we use chemicals to boost food supplies and kill disease-bearing pests, because not doing so would constitute a far greater hazard to our well-being.

But environmentalists are not interested in making common-sense trade-offs. Fanatics never are. That’s why they themselves become hazardous to human health when they occupy positions of political power.