March 1995 (vol. 11, #3)
1601 N Tucson Blvd #9, Tucson AZ 85716 c 1995 Physicians
for Civil Defense
Environmentalism is the modern equivalent of motherhood and apple pie. Literally everybody is in favor of clean air, clean water, and the survival of the Planet.
Likewise, everybody likes to live in a clean house. Cleanliness undoubtedly contributes to good health and a good ``quality of life.'' But even the stereotypical German housewife stops at some point. If she starts to spend six hours a day scrubbing the bathroom, everyone knows she's sick, even those who can't name the pathology (obsessive-compulsive neurosis).
An fanatical concern with cleanliness
can become highly destructive long before the bathroom could approach
the standards demanded of a Superfund site.
A Mystical Standard
In most instances (demons such as dioxin excepted), even federal regulators know that zero risk, or zero concentration, is as impossible to achieve as the eradication of Lady Macbeth's ``damned spot.'' Therefore, a quasi-scientific criterion has been developed for ``acceptable'' exposure to pollutants: 10-6. This means an increased lifetime chance of one in a million of developing cancer due to lifetime exposure to the substance in question.
Our current chance of developing cancer sometime in our lives is 1 in 3. The 10-6 standard corresponds to an increase of 0.0003 %. This is far less than our risk of developing cancer due to exposure to ``background'' environmental contaminants, such as the naturally occurring carcinogens in foods. This risk is about one in 1000 to one in 100.
In 1991, Kathryn Kelly and Nanette Cardon conducted an extensive review to determine the source of this widely accepted standard (EPA Watch, 9/15/94, tel. (703)968-9768). They searched many data bases back to their origin in the 1970s and surveyed officials in the EPA, the FDA, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and many other agencies.
There was no written documentation, and no one could cite a source. Some of the more interesting comments: ``My mind is a complete blank.'' ``It's based on the chance of being hit by lightning, which is one in a million.'' ``It was a purely political decision made by several of the major agencies behind closed doors in the 1970s. I doubt very much if you'll get anyone to talk about it.'' And ``we just pulled it out of a hat.''
The standard is not uniformly applied.
Perception is a major determinant as is dogma.
One of the latest culprits targeted by the EPA is ``medical'' waste. Not only is it contaminated with human body fluids, but the most frequent method of disposal (incineration) produces dioxin, which is portrayed as ``the most carcinogenic substance known to man'' (CDP November, 1994), and one for which ``zero discharge'' may be demanded from paper plants.
If a hospital's incinerator can't meet the standard, the waste would have to be trucked to a regional incinerator. The result: as much or more dioxin, which is also emitted by diesel engines.
Another new target is ETS (environmental tobacco smoke) not primary tobacco smoke, which is deliberately inhaled by smokers, but the greatly diluted ``second-hand'' smoke.
Smokers have a 900 % increase in lung cancer, as well as a higher risk of other cancers and possibly heart disease. (The famous Framingham study did not confirm an increased risk of heart disease, to the puzzlement of its authors.) But when experts were convened to rank Arizona environmental hazards in order of seriousness, smoking was deliberately excluded (it is voluntary), while ETS was classified as ``high risk.''
Persons with active cavitary tuberculosis may fly on airliners and transmit their disease to flight attendants and fellow passengers. No one would dare ask a coughing passenger to wear a mask. But the penalties for disabling the lavatory smoke detector must perforce be announced before the airplane can depart from the gate.
ETS gives the EPA and other eager do-gooders the pretext for ever more intrusive regulation of private behavior. Theological arguments honestly based on faith won't wash; the priesthood has to invoke statistics, even if they are cooked. And any who dispute the evidence are demonized as shills for the Evil tobacco industry.
The AMA Council on Scientific Affairs has announced that ETS is a ``significant public health threat that demands attention from the health community as well as government regulatory agencies.'' Lung cancer, heart disease, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS or ``crib death'') are the threats. The last is a correlation only; no causal mechanism is suggested, and the effects of prenatal smoking are mixed with those of ETS.
Do you wonder why the AMA relegated this supposedly crucial article to the obscure Archives of Family Medicine (3:865-71, 1994)? The statistics probably wouldn't survive peer review for JAMA. For example, one-tailed significance tests are used (begging the question by assuming that any effect of ETS must be harmful). Oddly, the increased risk of cardiovascular disease calculated for ETS is no less than the risk from smoking itself. Even using dubious techniques for combining studies (meta-analysis), the relative risk of ETS is weak (about 1.34), less than the relative risk of breast cancer attributable to abortion (CDP January, 1995), which the AMA ignores.
Devastating critiques have been collected by a British Libertarian organization in publications such as ``The Dangers of Politically Corrupted Science for Democratic Public Policy'' (FOREST, 2 Grosvenor Gardens, London SW1W ODH).
One immediate and tangible harm: while the AMA adds guilt to the burden of smoking mothers who lose a child due to SIDS, they could be telling mothers to put babies to sleep on their backs. This simple advice has been demonstrated to reduce the incidence of SIDS by 60%.
Still another trace compound that the EPA wants to obsessively scrub from the earth is methyl bromide, an irreplaceable agricultural pesticide. Bromine is said to be 40 times more effective than chlorine in breaking down ozone and might be the cause of 20% of the seasonal Antarctic ozone depletion. But human sources contribute only one-third to the ``stratospheric bromine budget.'' The rest comes from marine plankton and biomass burning, such as wildfires in savannas, chaparral, and boreal forests (Science 263:1255-1257, 1994).
The only way to have a perfectly spic-and-span bathroom is to stop using it and keep it hermetically sealed.
The only way to meet the mystical and inconsistent goals of the environmental priesthood is to obliterate humankind or reduce it to abject servitude.