Toxic Statistics

Worth A Look, Environment, Frontier Centre

You have to hand it to Junk Science maestro Rick Smith and his lobby group, Environmental Defence. Persuading Rona Ambrose – who was yesterday relieved of her Environment portfolio – and Health Minister Tony Clement to donate body fluids for chemical analysis was a masterstroke.

This week, the entirely predictable results of testing both the Conservative Ministers and NDP leader Jack Leyton and Liberal environment critic John Godfrey emerged: pure toxic alarmism.
“Four MPs Test High for Toxic Pollutants” ran the headline in yesterday’s Post. Alongside appeared graphics that dutifully bar-charted the relative levels of certain chemicals in the four Politicos’ bodies.

ll four, it was revealed, had higher levels of these chemicals than adults and children tested in a previous scary study. No explanation was offered for this phenomenon.

The emphasis on the numbers of chemicals in each politician’s body, and their relative presence, served brilliantly to obscure the real issues of whether the chemicals were present in a potentially dangerous degree, and why trace – that is, unbelievably tiny amounts of – chemicals are inevitable, and thus arguably desirable, in the denizens of any rich and prosperous industrial society.

The study revealed that Mr. Layton had the highest levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (or PBDEs, as we laypeople more commonly refer to them) in his system. These chemicals are used most commonly in flame retardants, but, as the Post dutifully regurgitated “are suspected of disrupting hormones, causing cancer and development disorders, and having damaging effects on the thyroid, which could result in learning disabilities and behavioral (sic) problems.” In fact, Health Canada itself has stated that no links whatsoever have been conclusively established between PBDEs and any disease.

More egregious, however is the study’s abuse of statistical presentation. The bar charts appear to present substantial numbers, but these numbers represent parts per billion or trillion, which is more of a testimony to the stunning accuracy of testing equipment than to the presence of physical danger. For example, the bar representing the presence of PBDEs in Mr. Layton’s blood gives figures in picograms per gram. A picogram is one-trillionth (10 to the power of 12) of a gram. Thus if the chart was to represent 1 gram on the same scale as the bar representing the relatrive presence of PBDEs in Mr. Layton, it would have to extend (by my rough calculations) more than 100,000 kilometers, thus stretching a good part of the distance to the moon.

The study was used as an opportunity for some typical grandstanding by Messrs. Layton and Godfrey. Mr. Godfrey declared this week that he was surprised by the levels of toxins within his system. “Even those people who try to live a healthy lifestyle and avoid bad things can’t help but acquiring toxins in their blood through eating and drinking and simply being exposed to materials that they’re not even a ware contain these things.”

Exactly. Indeed, the presence of trace elements of these chemicals within these relatively healthy middle- aged politicians would indicate that they are perfectly compatible with good health and the prospect of long life.

Most remarkable perhaps is exactly why Conservative politicians, whom we might expect to adopt a more level-headed approach to environmental issues, would participate in this charade. Ms. Ambrose appeared to take positive pride in the summer in revealing that her office had been “working closely” with Environmental Defence. “The House might be interested to know,” she said then, “that the Minister of Health and myself have offered to participate in a study to raise the profile of the toxins in our children’s blood and to take some measures to address them.”

But why in the name of God would she want to crank up alarmism? The Conservatives appear to have concluded that they are going to have to abandon straight-talk and common sense on environmental issues to have any hope of winning the next election. Ms. Ambrose, although she has admittedly put up a shaky performance in the environment portfolio, yesterday significantly paid the price for having stated the unacceptably obvious on Kyoto: there is no way Canada could possibly meet its obligations. Meanwhile recent opinion polls indicate that NGOs such as Environmental Defence have succeeded in pushing the worry soup that goes under the name “the environment” to the top of electors’ minds.

The Conservatives have apparently decided that they must demonstrate requisite levels of environmental sensitivity, whatever the facts. They have thus delivered a Clean Air Act which largely addresses nonproblems to which legislative solutions are already in place. They have also attempted to rush to the head of the panicked Canadian electorate by helping stoke fear on chemicals.

More generally, as Ms. Ambrose admitted in the summer, the Conservatives have recently been “consulting” with alarmist NGOs in the vain hope that they might buy them off, or perhaps themselves learn a little more about manipulating an inevitably – and deliberately – confused electorate.

This week’s press release by Environmental Defence contained a boilerplate statement from Ms. Ambrose, making it appear as if the Conservative party was an adjunct of the environmental NGO. Hence kudos to Mr. Smith for his political smarts, but certainly not for his scientific objectivity.
As in war, the first casualty in environmental politics always seems to be the truth.