Chem­i­cal scare­mon­ger­ing

It’s time to dis­man­tle the alarmism in­dus­try

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Steve Mil­loy Steve Mil­loy is a se­nior le­gal fel­low at the En­ergy & En­vi­ron­ment Le­gal In­sti­tute and the au­thor of “Scare Pol­lu­tion: Why and How to Fix the EPA” (Bench Press, 2016).

It’s great news the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is start­ing to dis­man­tle the junk science life-sup­port sys­tem for gov­ern­ment over­reg­u­la­tion. Bud­get cuts at the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA), and re­forms of science ad­vi­sory pan­els at the De­part­ment of In­te­rior and EPA, stir hope the agencies’ long­stand­ing reigns of ter­ror via “science” may come to an end.

But let’s not stop at EPA and In­te­rior. Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Bud­get chief Mick Mul­vaney could save tax­pay­ers $690 mil­lion per year by elim­i­nat­ing the Na­tional In­sti­tute of En­vi­ron­men­tal Health Science (NIEHS), which is at least 20 years past its ex­pi­ra­tion date. At the very least, its Obama-ap­pointed di­rec­tor, Linda Birn­baum, should be re­moved im­me­di­ately.

NIEHS was formed in 1965 in the wake of Rachel Car­son’s book “Silent Spring.” Car­son al­leged chem­i­cals in the en­vi­ron­ment caused can­cer and other health ef­fects. Though the book was in­nu­endo-laden and ev­i­dence-free, in the ab­sence of any se­ri­ous ex­ist­ing sci­en­tific study of the con­tro­versy, ar­guably le­git­i­mate ques­tions were raised.

These con­cerns led not only to gov­ern­ment-funded re­search pro­grams but bet­ter-safe-than-sorry-themed laws and reg­u­la­tions. By 1978, the Carter ad­min­is­tra­tion or­ga­nized the Na­tional Tox­i­col­ogy Pro­gram (NTP) within NIEHS with the mis­sion of eval­u­at­ing chem­i­cals and other agents of con­cern to pub­lic health.

The NIEHS-NTP’s ini­tial fo­cus was whether chem­i­cals and other agents in the en­vi­ron­ment caused can­cer. With­out any ex­ist­ing sci­en­tific ev­i­dence to back up this no­tion, gov­ern­ment sci­en­tists went about try­ing to in­vent some lab­o­ra­tory an­i­mal ex­per­i­ments wor­thy of “Satur­day Night Live.”

Be­cause ex­pos­ing lab an­i­mals to typ­i­cal lev­els of chem­i­cals in the en­vi­ron­ment didn’t in­crease can­cer rates, sci­en­tists tested the high­est pos­si­ble doses — just short of out­right poi­son­ing — on an­i­mals spe­cially bred to de­velop can­cer spon­ta­neously. So an in­creased rate of can­cer could be in­duced in spe­cial lab mice with the con­tro­ver­sial apple tree pes­ti­cide Alar, for ex­am­ple, by dos­ing them with an amount equiv­a­lent to the Alar ex­po­sure from a hy­po­thet­i­cal per­son drink­ing 19,000 quarts of apple juice per day.

Such ab­sur­dity aside, the re­sults of the lab­o­ra­tory an­i­mal tests proved to be use­less. By the late 1990s, a re­view re­ported that 85 per­cent of the chem­i­cals tested by NIEHS were re­ported to have ei­ther had a can­cer-caus­ing or even an anti-can­cer­caus­ing ef­fect on some tis­sue in some species of lab an­i­mal. The study au­thors con­cluded, “This sug­gests that most chem­i­cals given at high enough doses will cause some per­tur­ba­tion in tu­mor rates.”

Most im­por­tantly, how­ever, and com­pletely ig­nored by NIEHS-NTP is the reality that no epi­demic of chem­i­cal-caused can­cer has ever been ob­served in the real world. None of the var­i­ous and so-called “can­cer clus­ters” that have been re­ported over the decades have ever been con­firmed as re­lated to chem­i­cals. Can­cer, it seems, is largely a mat­ter of ag­ing and ge­net­ics. We know that very high ex­po­sures to ra­di­a­tion, smok­ing and some as­bestos fibers are as­so­ci­ated with in­creased can­cer risk. But chem­i­cals in the en­vi­ron­ment? No ev­i­dence sup­ports that no­tion.

Wor­ried about the fail­ure of its chief claims, the anti-chem­i­cal in­dus­try em­braced a new alarm in the 1990s — even the low­est lev­els of en­vi­ron­men­tal ex­po­sures to chem­i­cals dis­rupt hor­monal or en­docrine sys­tems.

The so-called “en­docrine dis­rupter” scare kicked off in 1996 with (again) a book en­ti­tled “Our Stolen Fu­ture: Are We Threat­en­ing Our Fer­til­ity, In­tel­li­gence and Sur­vival?” Un­for­tu­nately for the scare­mon­gers, the highly touted sci­en­tific study pub­lished in Science mag­a­zine to co­in­cide with the book’s re­lease had to be re­tracted be­cause its fed­er­ally funded au­thors, the gov­ern­ment de­ter­mined, had com­mit­ted sci­en­tific mis­con­duct by fal­si­fy­ing re­sults.

This didn’t stop the NIEHS-NTP from hop­ping aboard the en­docrine dis­rupter rail­road even af­ter the scare was later de­bunked by a spe­cial panel of the Na­tional Academy of Sciences and the fail­ure of any en­su­ing stud­ies to hold up to ordinary sci­en­tific stan­dards and scru­tiny.

And what role does Linda Birn­baum play in this? She has spent her ca­reer in the chem­i­cals-cause-health-prob­lems in­dus­try, mostly at NIEHS-NTP and EPA. She takes pride, for ex­am­ple, in hav­ing spent 35 years study­ing dioxin, a ubiq­ui­tous fam­ily of chem­i­cals once fan­ta­sized to be the most toxic sub­stance known to man.

I helped end the EPA’s panic about diox­ins dur­ing 1999 and 2000 with an in­ex­pen­sive study re­port­ing that a sin­gle scoop of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream con­tained about 2,000 times the level of dioxin that EPA be­lieved could be safely con­sumed. Since no one thought of Ben & Jerry’s as a poi­son, that was ba­si­cally the end of the scare. Iron­i­cally, it was her own re­search that Mrs. Birn­baum is most proud of that made my Ben & Jerry’s study pos­si­ble.

Mrs. Birn­baum was ap­pointed to lead NIEHS-NTP in 2009 — largely be­cause she was will­ing to ex­pand the agency’s mis­sion to in­clude the health ef­fects of cli­mate change while the other can­di­date for her job was not, ac­cord­ing to a knowl­edge­able source.

She is now caught in con­tro­versy over her NIEHSNTP award­ing $92 mil­lion in re­search con­tracts to a con­tro­ver­sial re­search group with which she is presently af­fil­i­ated, the Bologna, Italy-based Ra­mazz­inni In­sti­tute. Re­searchers there have been try­ing for decades to link chem­i­cals in the en­vi­ron­ment with can­cer and other health ef­fects. Two con­gres­sional com­mit­tees are in­ves­ti­gat­ing.

On one hand, Mrs. Birn­baum and fel­low anti-chem­i­cal ac­tivist-re­searchers should be thanked for their valu­able ser­vices. De­spite their best ef­forts to val­i­date Rachel Car­son, they failed — and not from lack of try­ing or fund­ing.

We now know low lev­els of chem­i­cals in the en­vi­ron­ment are noth­ing to panic about. Un­for­tu­nately for the 70-year-old Mrs. Birn­baum and her ilk, that is not the out­come they wanted, ex­pected or can ac­cept from a ca­reers’ worth of work. The chem­i­cal alarmism in­dus­try is go­ing to keep at it as long as the money flows its way.

So it’s up to the new ad­min­is­tra­tion to say thanks, cut the fund­ing and move on to real prob­lems.

Wor­ried about the fail­ure of its chief claims, the anti-chem­i­cal in­dus­try em­braced a new alarm in the 1990s — even the low­est lev­els of en­vi­ron­men­tal ex­po­sures to chem­i­cals dis­rupt hor­monal or en­docrine sys­tems.


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