Environmental Disasters: The Rest of the Story

Published November 1, 2006

This article is the sixth in a continuing series excerpted from the book Smoke or Steam: A Guide to Environmental, Regulatory and Food Safety Concerns, by Samuel Aldrich, excerpted and abridged by Jay Lehr.

Crying “fire!” in a crowded theater is irresponsible, perhaps illegal. But spreading terror among citizens by claiming Alar will cause cancer in children, by claiming drinking water is unsafe, and by claiming pesticide residues in food are hazardous to your health is not even a misdemeanor.

Perpetrators of environmental and food safety scares, and even outright hoaxes, are never held accountable for the personal tragedies that result from business failures and the unwarranted fear and alarm they spread. They are, in fact, often praised by the news media as consumer advocates and protectors. They are never forced to retract earlier statements that proved later to be false.

Paul Harvey makes a career of presenting interesting news items and then telling “the rest of the story”–which always dramatically changes the original impression. The rest of the story needs to be told for many environmental and food safety stories that made bold headlines years ago.

Three Mile Island

The news media continue to call the accident at the Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania the worst nuclear disaster in U.S. history. Contrary to the image likely created in the minds of many readers, TV viewers, or radio listeners, that is good news!

Why? Because the “worst” nuclear disaster caused no deaths among humans and animals and caused no lingering health effects.

No residual contamination has been found. The radioactive material released was trivial and far below the level at which any undesirable effects on humans would be expected. The danger of a complete meltdown followed by dangerous releases was near zero.

The official report stated the most serious impact of Three Mile Island was the hysteria created among the local people by the news media.

Confusion Understandable

Reporters on the scene may be excused for the unnecessary hysteria they created. It was a totally new experience for them. Details were difficult to obtain. The information supplied by plant management personnel changed frequently. Each new report seemed to increase the seriousness of the accident.

As a result of new–and in many cases unnecessary–regulations put into place as a result of the Three Mile Island scare, the estimated time for construction of nuclear plants in the United States doubled, and the cost rose from $400 million to as much as $7 billion. Accordingly, nuclear power plant construction came to a screeching halt.

There is no excuse for perpetrating the myth that Three Mile Island was a public disaster. For nearly a generation the many advantages of nuclear power have been denied U.S. citizens, including conservation of fossil fuels, less black lung disease among coal miners, and fewer miners killed in accidents.

The good news is that the tide of resistance to growth in nuclear power has passed its peak. For nearly 30 years since the Three Mile Island incident, 103 nuclear plants have been operating in the U.S. with no serious incident. Operators of three dozen nuclear plants indicate they plan to seek extensions of their permits to operate.

Other nations moved ahead in safe, economical, and environmentally friendly nuclear power production while the United States stood still. While nuclear energy supplies 80 percent of electric power in France, anti-nuclear activists have thus far prevented new plant construction in the United States.

That may soon change, as poll after poll shows the American public overwhelmingly supports more nuclear power production.

PCBs Banned Unnecessarily

PCBs were widely used from 1929 to 1977 as a safety improvement over highly combustible mineral oil in electrical equipment insulation. After 46 years of use, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that rats fed extremely high doses of PCBs developed liver cancers.

Based upon the flimsy evidence of that single study, Congress banned PCBs in 1976. Twenty-four years after that first research report, the same researcher, together with a colleague, published a finding in the Journal of Occupational Scientific Medicine (1999) that there was no real-world association of PCBs with human cancer or any other disease.

The second study focused on 7,075 persons who worked in factories that manufactured PCBs between 1946 and 1977. Some persons had blood levels of several thousand parts per billion (ppb), compared to the 4 to 8 ppb blood levels typical of other U.S. citizens. After 31 years of very high exposure to PCBs, cancer rates among the factory workers had not increased.

Despite that research, Clinton administration EPA Administrator Carol Browner claimed PCBs in water “probably caused cancer in people” and posed a “serious threat to public health.”

Unnecessary Dredging Ordered

Browner was attempting to justify EPA’s decision to require General Electric, at an estimated cost of $460 million, to dredge the upper Hudson River to remove moderate concentrations of PCBs that were already on their way to entombment beneath the river bottom.

Tests by New York State biologists show the PCB content in fish 100 miles downstream has already fallen within the federally accepted level, which has a huge built-in safety factor.

EPA’s decision to force this expensive and unnecessary dredging is a prime candidate for righteous indignation.

Oil Spill Cleanups Harmful

Major oil spills have occurred at Valdez, Alaska, along the coasts of Texas and California, and in many other places around the world. Each spill receives intensive media attention. However, the most serious effects have been localized, though impacts on migratory birds spread beyond the sites of spills.

The rest of the story regarding oil spills is that scientists who have studied them around the world agree that in nearly all cases the best treatment is no treatment at all, with the possible exception of initial containment.

The components of oil that are most hazardous to fish and other wildlife are highly volatile: They dissipate into the air before any remedial action can be taken.

Treating shorelines with oil removal methods removes unsightly compounds to the depth of a few inches but kills the natural organisms that are capable of decomposing the oil. The result is that the lower layers remain contaminated several years longer than if untreated. Millions of dollars have been wasted in futile clean-up attempts.

Coming up: In future issues of Environment & Climate News, we will tell the “rest of the story” about the ozone hole, radon, saccharin, acid rain, Alar, asbestos, and nitrogen fertilizers.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute. Samuel Aldrich is an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois. His groundbreaking book for laymen, Smoke or Steam? A Guide to Environmental, Regulatory, and Food Safety Concerns, is available from The Heartland Institute for $12. The table of contents of the book, containing 211 topics, can be downloaded at http://www.heartland.org/smokeorsteam.pdf.