Do Environmental Organizations Kill People?

Published August 1, 1999

Last November, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) and the National Environmental Trust released another of their reports about emissions of toxic chemicals. Predictably, they warned that chemicals threaten human health. Predictably, their local affiliates in Louisiana, home of the notorious “cancer alley” and scene of a major battle over “environmental justice,” immediately demanded more regulations on industrial plants.

The emissions numbers are probably correct; after all, they come from industry reports. Beyond that, PIRG and the Trust get nothing right. There is no convincing evidence that environmental chemicals affect health, and increased suffering and deaths are the likely results of more regulations.

We know a great deal about the possible links between chemicals in the environment and human disease, especially cancer. We should. The National Cancer Institute and the Environmental Protection Agency have spent billions of dollars and years of effort looking for possible links, and they have not found any convincing evidence for them.

The numbers of both new cases of cancer (“incidence”) and deaths from cancer (“mortality”) have been falling since 1990. In March, 1998, David Rosenthal, president of the American Cancer Society, said that we had “turned the corner in the war on cancer.” A year earlier, NCI director Richard Klausner said, “This is the news we’ve been waiting for.”

The reports about cancer declines don’t mention environmental chemicals except to say that they are not important as a cause of cancer. Experts attribute the declines in incidence to decreases in smoking, diets rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, and other changes in behavior that accompany improved living standards. Cancer mortality has fallen because of the decreases in incidence and because of advances in cancer detection and treatment methods.

If environmental chemicals cause cancer anywhere, it’s reasonable to look in Louisiana. Chemical emissions in the parishes that line the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge are well above the national average. If, as PIRG and the Trust insist, chemicals cause cancer, cancer incidence should be sky-high in cancer alley.

It’s not. In the April 1998 Journal of the Louisiana Medical Society, Dr. Vivien Chen and four other scientists from the LSU Medical Center reported that cancer incidence in black women, white women, and black men was below the national average in the river parishes. Incidence for white men was equal to the national average, no higher. [See table.]

Sadly and unfortunately, black men and women in the parishes with below average incidence have higher than average mortality. White men, with average cancer incidence, also have above average mortality. Only white women, who have below average incidence, are blessed with below average mortality.

Why is cancer mortality high? One answer, according to Dr. Chen, is inadequate medical care. Common sense and a world of research reveals that poor people are less likely to receive needed medical care, and poverty is above the national average in the river parishes. Although Louisiana provides free hospital care, one Baton Rouge home health care nurse says that 30 hours is a common waiting room time. Spending almost four 9-to-5 days waiting to see the doctor would discourage almost anyone from seeking care. Hard as the providers of public medical care may work, their system cannot offer services remotely comparable to private medical care.

The conclusions from Louisiana are clear. Cancer incidence is not elevated. The tragedy in Louisiana is that a person who develops cancer is more likely to die because of inadequate medical care. Publicly provided medical care is, at best, slow, and the slowness contributes to increased mortality. The solution is more jobs so that more people will be able to afford private medical care.

The environmental organizations eliminate jobs. Their greatest recent triumph was stopping the construction of a planned chemical plant in largely black St. James, Louisiana. Beginning with “environmental justice” claims that blacks have higher environmental exposures, they argued that the tiny amounts of chemical emissions expected from the new plant were unacceptable. They convinced a willing EPA to deny a permit for the plant. Bear in mind that no one has been able to show that those chemicals, even at concentrations hundreds of times higher than would have been emitted from the plant, cause any human disease. Consider the fact that a majority of the black community wanted the plant. And consider, too, that most studies find no evidence for the basic argument that blacks have higher environmental exposures.

Several hundred high-paying jobs, with the promise of good medical care for all the workers and their families, were lost. Some of those people now face needless suffering and death. And so in this case, at least, it can fairly be said that environmentalism kills.

Michael Gough is the coauthor with Steve Milloy of Silencing Science (Cato Institute, 1999). He is affiliated with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C., and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, Washington, D.C.