Scared Sick?

Published April 1, 1999

Shiny red apples on every table served as silent reminders of the Alar scare that ten years ago had mothers asking state troopers to stop school buses and take “dangerous” apples out of their children’s lunch bags. Less-silent reminders were the several speakers at the February 17 Independent Women’s Forum conference at the National Press Club in Washington, who analyzed popular misconceptions about the environment and health and how those misconceptions color the news, politics, and education.

“Scared Sick? A Conference to Examine Unfounded Fear and its Effect on Health and Science Policies” featured, among other speakers, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health. Whelan discussed the “precautionary principle”–an approach to policy-making that results in decisions based on perceived risks, rather than facts. As a result, she said, public policy can focus on tiny, even non-existent environmental risks that Whelan characterized as “ants,” while ignoring such health risk “elephants” as smoking and alcohol abuse.

Whelan noted that Consumers Union would release a report the next day (February 18) warning that young children are at great risk from pesticides on fruits and vegetables. She reminded her listeners that ten years ago Consumers Union spokesmen argued that public policy about Alar should be based on perception, not fact. “Where does that leave science?” she asked, noting that she could see no role for science and objective findings in a world ruled by perception.

Henry Miller, formerly responsible for biotechnology-related activities at the Food and Drug Administration and now at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, spoke about the schism that has opened up in response to biotechnology products. Pharmaceutical products of biotechnology are generally finding acceptance, he noted, even among environmental organizations. Bioengineered food crops–wheat, potatoes, and soy beans among them–are widely grown in the United States, but they have generated enormous controversy in Britain and the rest of Europe, where they are depicted as dangerous to human health and the environment. The absence of any evidence to support those claims has not dampened the opposition.

Miller was especially concerned about the ongoing U.N. “biodiversity conference” in Cartagena, Columbia, slated to end on February 23. He warned that U.N. bureaucrats were poised to demand that every country, no matter how poor, establish watchdog agencies over biotechnology food crops–a move that would reduce the money available for addressing real health problems, delay or preclude the growing of better-yielding crops, and brew corruption.

Sallie Baliunas and Jo Kwong were among the panelists who addressed environment issues unrelated to health. Baliunas, senior staff physicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and deputy director of the Mount Wilson Observatory, noted that the global warming controversy had dramatically increased funding for climatology. As a result, she said, the worst fears about climate change have been dispelled, and some changes in energy policy that would have greatly retarded economic development and done little to affect climate have been discarded.

Kwong, a researcher at the Atlas Foundation, titled her discussion of K-12 environment education “Teaching Propaganda–Fear Trumps Fact.” Many textbooks, she said, emphasize politically correct attitudes towards the environment and downplay the role of scientific inquiry. Some go so far as to disparage science as a method to understand the environment. Kwong told of a bright, dedicated teacher who taught a seminar on critical thinking. The teacher said that a good topic for classroom use was “Do all environmental problems result from human overpopulation?” When Kwong asked the teacher how she would respond to a student who concluded the answer was no, the teacher said she’d never allow a student to go that far astray. Kwong was not optimistic about making changes in environmental education.

Marcia Angell, executive editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and author of Science on Trial: The Clash of Medical Evidence and the Law in the Breast Implant Case, discussed the enormous number of reports that people now receive about the impacts of exposures and behaviors on their health. “Many reports are trivial, many more are just plain wrong, and a lot of what we’re told is inconsistent.”

In answer to a question about accepting government reports, Angell said, “We’re naive if we think government isn’t subject to political considerations.”

She said that the plaintiffs’ bar–the lawyers who represent people with claims against manufacturers and producers–has been the principal beneficiary of the proliferation of health and environmental scares.

And, as Whelan and other speakers said, science loses when those scares proliferate.

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