Use Reason


Years ago, a friend who worked for Florida’s state environmental department told me something that’s handy to remember, given the habit some journalists have of adding melodrama to stories about science and the environment. My friend said that testing capability had far outrun knowledge.

What he meant was that equipment used to analyze water, for example, could now detect substances in really minute amounts like parts per billion, while nobody knew if substances in such infinitely small amounts had any effect whatsoever on human health. Nobody even knew for sure if the substances had always been in water, though previously undetectable.

I got aggravated once some years ago by a reporter who always referred to a pesticide as "cancer-causing." Sunshine and many common substances can cause cancer. The thing to remember is that when we talk of toxicity of chemicals or carcinogens, amount is the key. We can’t live without salt, for example, but too much salt will kill us. Aspirin is a great pain reliever; too much will kill us. You can probably think of many examples yourself.

Anyway, I was so aggravated with that reporter’s sloppy reporting that I tracked down the man in the Environmental Protection Agency bureaucracy in charge of setting standards for pesticide. He explained the process. First, a chemical is tested on mice. A caution: Results in mice do not necessarily translate to humans. But if a certain dosage produces tumors in mice, a computerized formula is applied to determine a safe level for humans.

He cited an example. When the EPA says the acceptable level of something for human consumption is so many parts per million, what it is really saying is that according to the formula in the computer, if a human being consumes so many parts per million every day of his life for 72 years, then the risk of developing cancer is increased by some fraction of a percentage point. Then, with a somewhat sardonic laugh, he pointed out that the natural background cancer rate is 20 percent.

In the case that had irked me so, which involved grapefruit and a pesticide to treat a root disease, it is highly unlikely that any human being would consume enough grapefruit every day of his life for 72 years and thus increase his risk of cancer by some negligible fraction of a percent. What the reporter had been doing was writing alarmist stories about negligible, near-nonexistent risk. She was, as so many journalists do, following the Disney formula for cartoons — simplifying and exaggerating.

Redd Foxx used to tell a joke about smoking: "Some folks don’t smoke cigarettes ’cause they’re scared of dying of lung cancer; some folks don’t eat cheese or eggs ’cause they’re scared of heart attacks; some folks don’t eat pie or cake ’cause they’re scared of diabetes. They gonna feel like damned fools one day lying in the hospital dying from nothing."

The old rascal was making the point that human mortality is 100 percent. We’re all going to die of something, so there is no need to get paranoid about some trace amount of chemicals. I’ve seen stories recently about some tranquilizers showing up in treated sewage. So what? I seriously doubt they are in sufficient dosage to cause happy fish.

What usually kills us, and historically always has been the main killer of people, are bacteria, viruses and parasites. None of these, to the best of my knowledge, is manufactured by Monsanto or DuPont. I personally don’t read news stories about health or science. There are so many scare stories about the risk of this or that, you can easily become a paranoid hypochondriac by reading all of that junk. Reasonable precautions and moderation in all things are quite sufficient for reasonable health.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.