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Home > Publications > Quill > Flashback: Toxic Error


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Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Flashback: Toxic Error

Elizabeth Whelan

Below are excerpts from a story that originally appeared in the December 1985 issue of Quill:



Like most other Americans, I get a good deal of my information about health and the environment from books, magazines, newspapers and the electronic media. And what I have seen, heard and read in the past three years has led me to believe that when it comes to discussions of health and environment, the word news is synonymous with bad news.

Daily we are subject to anxiety-producing reports about the “poisons” in our environment, the threat of premature death, human misery, defective children, or no children at all, caused by our careless use of technology. We are warned that calamity is at our doorstep, fresh out of a sinister test tube, and that we face an impending epidemic of disease and death.

Human existence itself seems to be jeopardized, our ecology ruined, with nothing left for us to leave the generations to come. And why is all this happening? The message is clear: Our disrespect for nature and the environment, and our thoughtless, unharnessed use of modern-day chemicals have spelled doomsday and ecological catastrophe for our country, and perhaps the world.

Dioxin, we read (in stories with subtitles like “Dioxin: In Search of a Killer”), is the “most toxic chemical known to man,” capable of causing instant death in minute amounts, responsible for cancer and birth defects in laboratory animals, and threatening the life and health of residents of Love Canal in upstate New York; Times Beach, Missouri; Newark, New Jersey; Midland, Michigan, and who knows where else.

Limits for acceptable residue limits of ethylene dibromide (EDB), a pesticide used on a number of agricultural commodities for some 40 years, were recently set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Although the guidelines ensure that the risk of cancer from EDB to consumers is at worst negligible, hysterical claims to the contrary have been made by activist groups and politicians. The EDB situation exemplifies how self-serving individuals and organizations can twist public health issues for political motives.

Women on the West Coast have repeatedly charged that widespread use of herbicides, particularly 2,4,5-T, has caused reproductive failures, including low sperm count, miscarriages and birth defects. Vietnam War veterans assert that all their symptoms and diseases were initiated by their exposure to the defoliating chemicals of Agent Orange in Southeast Asia.

Citizen groups have organized to interrupt the development of nuclear energy in this country, pointing always to their concern about the potential cancer-causing effects of low-level radiation and solemnly noting the “tragedy” at Three Mile Island.

We are told that we should not drink the water or breathe the air because it is poisoned with the “fallout of affluence,” and we are advised to avoid living in a heavily industrialized state like New Jersey. (And if we must visit New Jersey, we are admonished to hold our breath.)

The popular wisdom here can be summarized as follows:

• America is being poisoned by chemicals and radioactivity.

• Our country’s health has never been worse and is threatening to deteriorate even further.

• Big business is responsible for the environmental nightmare and cares not at all about what it is doing; it is concerned with its short-term profit margin.

• Little people (like you and me) are the vic-tims of corporate greed and toxic crime.

• The current and future wave of disease and death is the ultimate price we pay for technology and the “good life.”

• New and complex chemicals are poisons and must be either eliminated or highly regulated. The death-dealing technology must be stopped at any cost.

… My purpose in professionally evaluating the frightening claims about health and the environment in America begins with the acknowledgement that misused chemicals — from natural and man-made sources — can potentially do severe damage to human health as well as to our natural resources. But the yet-to-be-answered questions here are:

• Is America being poisoned to the extent that journalists, politicians, and other environmentalists claim?

• Are we experiencing an epidemic of disease,

including cancer, which can be linked casually with growth in American technology?

• Is air pollution in the United States making people sick, and perhaps even killing them?

• Would we be better off without pesticides and herbicides? If we ban a substantial number of them could we reduce the number of miscarriages, birth defects, cancer and other ailments in this country?

• Is nuclear energy hazardous to our health, and perhaps so potentially harmful that we would be better off turning to other sources of energy?

• Is the state of America’s health as bad as the doomsday writers say?

• Is technology making us sick?

If the answer to these questions is yes, we do indeed have an environmental nightmare with which to cope. But what if the answer to those questions is uniformly no? What if there is evidence that Americans have never been healthier, that with one major exception (tobacco-induced cancer), the age-adjusted cancer death rate has been declining over the past 50 years; that air and water pollution account for not one known death in the United States [in 1985]; that pesticides, to our best knowledge, are not contributing to ill health, but rather promoting good health; and that nuclear energy is safer than any other kind of energy available …?

Quill Update:

The previous article is an excerpt from a book by Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, published in 1985, called “Toxic Terror.” Twenty-four years later, and much of the seven-page article about doom-and-gloom reporting remains true.

BY AMY GUYER

“I think [things] are worse,” Whelan said recently about how the media reports on health and the environment.

For an example, she cited the phthalates scare last year. A rumor got out that phthalates, the chemicals that make plastic flexible, caused cancer in rodents. It resulted in a mass recall of all items containing phthalates, such as baby bottles and toys.

“Panic swept the nation,” Whelan said. “Stores started throwing out merchandise.”

But what people didn’t know is that sure, phthalates may have caused cancer in a rodent or two, but that doesn’t mean they would cause cancer in humans. Some substances that cause cancer in mice don’t even cause cancer in rats. Often, something that causes cancer in rodents, like phthalates, is never proven to cause cancer in humans.

“Nature abounds in carcinogens,” Whelan said. “The more we test natural food, the more they cause cancer in rodents.” The American Council on Science and Health wrote a whole book on the question, “Do animal studies mirror humans?”

And, “when there’s panic over a given chemical, no one asks about the new chemical [used to replace it],” Whelan added, when the new chemical could be just as likely to cause cancer in rodents as the first chemical.

So why’s there such mass panic over unfounded claims?

Whelan says a huge part of the problem is the same today as it was in the ’80s: When mass panic breaks out over a new chemical, “scientists remain mute, don’t speak up and say, ‘This is ridiculous.’”

“Most scientists aren’t comfortable speaking with the media,” Whelan said. “There’s just a handful who write op-eds; there’s no scientific revolt.”

Most of the studies publicized by the media are done through independent research groups and interpreted by a media that doesn’t have a good understanding of the subject. And the language barrier between the media and science makes it unlikely for scientists to speak to the media — researchers might speak in technical terms that the public would not understand.

But Whelan thinks the problem might be deeper than that. “Psychiatrists tell us these are psychiatric events,” she said. “People fear things they don’t see or understand. That’s why it’s so hard to deal with.”

So while the characters have changed, Whelan said — for example, we worry about phthalates today where we may have worried more about dioxins in the past — the theory behind her ’80s story is the same, and the lethargy among researchers toward the media “is even worse.”

The panic may never go away, but Whelan has at least one suggestion to alleviate the problem.

“I’d like people to be more skeptical.”

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