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#330 - N.Y. Times Resolves Toxics Dilemma The Old-Fashioned Way: Linguistic Detoxification, 23-Mar-1993

For some time, we have been warning our readers that major polluters
and their friends are preparing an assault on the nation's two major
toxic waste laws (Superfund and RCRA, the Resource Conservation and
Recovery Act). (See RHWN #271, #147, #139, for example.) One or the
other of these two federal laws--and perhaps both--will be considered
by Congress this year.

The NEW YORK TIMES began a front-page series on toxics and waste this
week, printing long stories Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.[1]
The Sunday article set the tone and the themes, beginning with the
statement that "many scientists, economists and Government officials
have reached the dismaying conclusion that much of America's
environmental program has gone seriously awry. These experts say that
in the last 15 years environmental policy has too often evolved largely
in reaction to popular panics, not in reaction to sound scientific
analyses of which environmental hazards present the greatest risks."

The main message of the TIMES stories is this: The nation's toxic waste
program is itself a colossal waste because toxic chemicals, and
especially toxic wastes, are not as dangerous as previously believed
and perhaps are not dangerous at all. Furthermore, we got ourselves
into this expensive mess because Congress didn't listen to the
technical experts but listened instead to the voters.

Here is the TIMES'S argument in an nutshell:

1) Billions of dollars "are wasted each year in battling problems that
are no longer considered especially dangerous." Examples are toxic
dumps and asbestos in schools, the TIMES says.

2) "Since 1980, thousands of regulations were written to restrict
compounds that had caused cancer in rats and mice, even though these
animal studies often fail to predict how the compounds might affect
humans."

3) There is a "new, third wave of environmentalism sweeping across
America" composed of "farmers, homeowners and others who are upset
largely by the growing cost of regulations that didn't appear to bring
any measurable benefits." The only spokesperson for this "third wave of
environmentalism" quoted by the TIMES on Sunday is Richard J. Mahoney,
chairman of Monsanto, the chemical company.

4) This Third Wave has moved into "universities, city halls, state
capitols, and even into the highest levels of the E.P.A. [U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency]." At this point the TIMES quotes EPA's
Science Advisory Board complaining that Congress has passed laws based
on "public perception of risk rather than scientific understanding of
risk."

5) The main message of these Third Wave environmentalists is that the
"experts" have not been allowed to set America's environmental agenda;
instead we have had "environmental agenda setting by episodic panic."
In other words, our problem is too much democracy.

6) As a result of Congress's refusal to listen to the experts, America
is spending $140 billion per year on the environment ($100 billion by
the private sector, $40 billion by government), which is roughly half
what we spend on the military.[2] Not all the environmental money is
wasted, says the TIMES. "Few experts question the wisdom of spending $3
billion each year on new sewage treatment plants." But: "Many
experts... question the wisdom of spending billions of dollars to
protect people from traces of toxic compounds." The TIMES then quotes
Dr. Richard Goodwin, whom they identify as a "private environmental
engineer," who says we're wasting money on toxic dumps. The TIMES does
not mention that Dr. Goodwin is a consultant to the incineration
industry who has conducted a campaign to have toxic ash exempted from
federal and state regulations. (See RHWN #189 and #191.)

7) "The toxic waste program stands as the most wasteful effort of all"
because "many of the [abandoned chemical dump] sites pose little if any
danger," the TIMES says, without offering any evidence.

8) To support its claim that dumps pose little or no danger, the TIMES
then offers not evidence but another unsupported assertion (an
assertion we've seen and evaluated previously--see RHWN #249, #275,
#290, #292): "New research indicates that dioxin may not be so
dangerous after all. None of the former residents of Times Beach [Mo.]
have been found to be harmed by dioxin, and two years ago, Dr. Vernon
N. Houk, the Federal official who urged the evacuation [of citizens
living in Times Beach] declared that he had made a mistake."

9) The TIMES continues: While we're spending billions to protect the
public from relatively harmless substances like dioxin, we're allowing
real problems to grow unchecked. Examples are mercury in fish and lead
in children, the TIMES says.

10) But back to the TIMES's main theme: "perhaps no environmental
program has come under more criticism than the Superfund and its
progeny," says the TIMES, launching into a lengthy description of a
Superfund site in Mississippi where soil was cleaned up to a standard
that would allow children to eat a half a teaspoonful of it every month
for a lifetime without getting cancer. (Half a teaspoon a month for 70
years equals 3000 grams of soil.) The TIMES ridicules such cleanliness
as a goal: "E.P.A. officials acknowledged that at least half of the $14
billion spent on Superfund cleanups was used to comply with similar
'dirt-eating rules,' as they call them."

In making fun of the Superfund program, the TIMES fails to examine the
basis for EPA's assumption that children need to be protected from
industrial poisons in soil.

The cleanup standard that the TIMES ridicules is based on the
assumption that children eat soil, which is in fact true. Contaminated
soil is an important source of toxic lead in children.[3]

The federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has studied children's
behavior. It turns out that some children eat soil directly and other
children merely transfer soil from their hands to their mouths. CDC
estimates that 5 to 10 percent of all children eat dirt directly (a
behavior pattern called "pica") and that such children may ingest an
average of 8000 grams of soil during their first 5 years of life.[4]
The best available evidence, therefore, indicates that the EPA's
cleanup standard (3000 grams ingested during a lifetime) may not be
strict enough to protect all children.

The first four articles in the TIMES'S series are remarkable in several
respects: (1) they never mention pollution prevention; (2) they claim,
or imply, numerous times that toxic chemicals and radioactivity have
not harmed anyone, but they provide no evidence that this is true; (3)
they ignore a large body of scientific literature that contradicts
their claims and conclusions.

WE TOO BELIEVE AMERICA'S ENVIRONMENTAL GOALS AND PRIORITIES HAVE GONE
AWRY DURING THE PAST 20 YEARS. BUT WE FIND THE Times's ANALYSIS
WRONGHEADED, AND ALMOST ENTIRELY LACKING IN EVIDENCE TO SUPPORT ITS
ASSERTIONS. FURTHERMORE, THE Times's WRITERS EXHIBIT A BREATHTAKING
IGNORANCE OF BASIC FACTS.

WE VIEW THE Times's WORK AS AN OPENING SALVO IN THE CONGRESSIONAL
DEBATE OVER THE NATION'S TOXIC WASTE LAWS. INDEED, THE SENATE COMMITTEE
ON ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS OPENED HEARINGS TODAY IN WASHINGTON,
BASED PARTLY ON STATEMENTS AND VIEWPOINTS IN THE Times's SERIES. THE
DEBATE IS ON. STAY TUNED.

--Peter Montague

=====

[1] Keith Schneider, "New View Calls Environmental Policy Misguided,"
NEW YORK TIMES March 21, 1993, pgs. 1, 30; Michael Specter, "Sea-
Dumping Ban: Good Politics, But Not Necessarily Good Policy," NEW YORK
TIMES March 22, 1993, pgs. 1, B8; Joel Brinkley, "Animal Tests as Risk
Clues: The Best Data May Fall Short," NEW YORK TIMES March 23, 1993,
pgs. 1, 16; Keith Schneider, "How a Rebellion Over Environmental Rules
Grew From a Patch of Weeds," NEW YORK TIMES March 24, 1993, pg. A16.

[2] Ruth Leger Sivard, WORLD MILITARY AND SOCIAL EXPENDITURES 1991,
14TH EDITION. (Washington, DC: World Priorities, 1991), pg. 51.

[3] Patrick L. Reagan and Ellen K. Silbergeld, "Establishing a Health-
Based Standard for Lead in Residential Soils," TRACE SUBSTANCES IN
ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH Vol. 23 (1990), pgs. 199-238.

[4] R. D. Kimbrough and others, "Health implications of 2,3,7,8-tetra-
chloro-dibenzo-dioxin (TCDD) contamination of residential soil,"
JOURNAL OF TOXICOLOGY AND ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH Vol. 14 (1984), pgs. 47-
93.

A FULL, PRINTED INDEX IS NOW AVAILABLE FOR 6 YEARS OF RACHEL'S
HAZARDOUS WASTE NEWS

RACHEL'S HAZARDOUS WASTE NEWS has now been fully indexed. A printed
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FURTHER NEWS: ALL BACK ISSUES OF RACHEL'S HAZARDOUS WASTE NEWS ARE NOW
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-Peter Montague

Descriptor terms: computer networks; electronic mail; econet; new york
times; superfund; remedial action; costs; radioactivity; radiation;
keith schneider; rcra reauthorization; congress; limits of science;
animal testing; public health policy; asbestos; regulations;
regulation; third wave of environmentalism; monsanto; richard mahoney;
experts; democracy; richard goodwin; dioxin; times beach, mo; vernon
houk; mercury; fish; lead; children; ms;