A Phony Study Deludes the Nation

Commentary, Environment, Rolf Penner

Panic was the purpose of “Polluted Children, Toxic Nation,” a report released early in June by the Toronto-based group, Environmental Defence. By claiming through the use of pseudo-science that our children are increasingly contaminated by chemical pollution, the organization hopes to scare Canadians and pressure politicians into enacting harsh new regulations on business. But ultimately such measures would merely increase consumer costs and decrease the safety of children.

First, the phony science. Thirteen people from five families across the country—hardly enough to be considered statistically significant—had their blood and urine tested for 68 man-made chemicals found to be poisonous at high levels of exposure. Unsurprisingly, they found infinitesimal amounts (parts per billion) of 46 of these substances including, PCB’s, DDT and fire retardants, as well as heavy metals like lead and manganese.

The reasons why this should not surprise vary from substance to substance. Some, like manganese and arsenic, occur naturally in foodstuffs; they’ve been there since Adam and Eve and the former is an essential trace element necessary for good health. Others, like PCB’s and DDT, have not been used for decades, but are stable substances that break down slowly. Incidentally, our exposure to them is steadily decreasing.

None of the levels of any come close to the amounts necessary to cause harm. All past and present scientific findings, including those contained in medical and toxicological databases, confirm that. The new “study,” however, presents the fact that they are there at all as enough reason for concern, as if dosage and context are irrelevant. The rule has always been: “It is the dose that makes the poison.” Instead of refuting the rule, as the authors intend, the section on the “Risks of Low Dose Contamination” merely reinforces it.

Priority one for Environmental Defence—more familiar as the renamed Canadian Environmental Defence Fund—is the banning of relatively new substances, PBDEs (polychlorinated biphenyls), flame-retardant chemicals added to plastic and foam products to make them difficult to burn, and PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals), used for things like non-stick pans, stain repellents, fire retardants and fire-fighting foams. The benefits of these products are self-evident, while their potential danger from tests to date has proven inconclusive.

Nonetheless, this lack of proof is apparently proof enough to ban them, as a precaution. Based on that line of thought, perhaps we should also ban potatoes. Slanine and chaconine, the natural, neurotoxic pesticides found in them, can bio-accumulate in fatty tissue. Unlike PBDE’s and PFC’s, these substances have actually been shown to cause birth defects in rodents. We don’t ban them, of course, because they appear in amounts too small to cause any known harm. The precautionary principle is no basis for law.

Beyond that, “Polluted Children, Toxic Nation” is riddled with errors of omission. It conveniently fails to mention what world-renowned Berkeley professor Bruce Ames has talked about for years, that 99.99% of the toxic chemicals we consume are natural; only 0.01% are synthetic. It references a recent study by the U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA), “America’s Children and the Environment,” but omits its clear conclusion that, with regards to water quality and levels of air pollutants, things have improved dramatically. Organophosphate pesticide residues on food declined 44% between 1993 and 2001, and the concentration of lead in the blood of children aged 5 and under dropped five-fold from 1976 to 2000. Those findings, of course, contradict the premise that things are getting worse.

Most despicable of the omissions involves a statistic about a 21% increase in the incidence of cancer in U.S. children. “Polluted Children, Toxic Nation” reports that, and then excludes the almost 50% decrease in children’s mortality from that disease over the same time frame, a fact found on the same EPA chart in the same study. By doing so, Environmental Defence obviously and intentionally twists a good-news story about great success in the diagnosis and treatment of a painful and deadly childhood affliction into a horror story for its own purpose.

Not only are we a “toxic nation,” it is a toxic world and was right from the start. At last count, Mother Nature produces about 10,000 natural pesticides, of which we have only tested 79, with half found to be carcinogenic. Yet the overall evidence clearly shows that by and large our health is continually improving, our life expectancy is continually increasing and, as our standard of living goes up, the level of pollution is going down, even while we have increased the number and use of all sorts of man-made plastics, pesticides and chemicals.

That is a real positive correlation. It’s nowhere to be found in “Polluted Children, Toxic Nation.” Why? Because it would contradict the study’s central purpose, to scare the public. People should be more concerned about the Environmental Defence’s list of proposed regulations, which, if imposed, would trash our economy, the source of wealth for all the environmental improvement we’ve accomplished. Let’s protect our children from that.

This article originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press June 29, 2006.