News & Politics
THE GLOBAL CITIZEN: Arguments that Don't Quite Connect
April 25, 2000
Public relations people have a funny way of arguing. You say something, and they answer with a change of subject. It's like a tennis game in which you hit a ball over the net and your opponent hits a different ball back. Confusing. Unfair. Not much of a game.For example, last winter I wrote a column that said synthetic chemicals are not people and we shouldn't treat them as innocent until proven guilty. If we suspect a chemical of doing harm, the burden should be on its maker to prove it safe, not on us to prove we're being poisoned.Fred Webber, president of the Chemical Manufacturers Association, didn't much like that column, so he wrote a rebuttal. It starts by trumpeting the benefits of chemicals. "We're living longer, healthier lives because so many diseases that were rampant years ago have been eradicated, our drinking water is purer, our homes and place of work are safer, and our food is abundant and affordable.... These dramatic improvements ... are due in large part to the great chemical discoveries ... of this century."All that may be true, but so what? The fact that some chemicals are wonderful does not mean none are harmful. Might as well argue we shouldn't lock up criminals because the world is full of saints.Webber goes on: "She (that's me) cites some unexplained deformities in frogs in Minnesota and suggests they must be due to chemicals, although the true cause has not been determined. Scientists say the deformities could be due to natural causes, we just don't know. Research will tell us."In fact I had quoted some of the very research Webber calls for, and it didn't help his cause: "Now comes a report in the Journal of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry about researchers in Switzerland exposing developing frogs to a fungicide called triphenyltin. (Minnesota sugarbeet farmers use over 100,000 pounds of triphenyltin a year.) The fungicide stunts the growth of tadpoles and retards the sexual development of adult frogs."In a lab this fungicide deforms frogs. In places where it is used frogs are deformed. While we work out the details, should we go on using this chemical?Webber uses another dubious tactic, the straw man (straw woman?): "She (me again) focuses on a massive spill in a Florida lake many years ago that harmed alligators living there and seems to suggest this is happening every day. It isn't."What I said was, you don't need massive spills to cause harm: "A pesticide spill about 15 years ago in a Florida lake called Apopka led scientists to be worried about estrogen-mimicry .... The pesticide caused the alligators in the lake to develop improperly, especially the males, which had shrunken penises and could not reproduce."New research ... reveals that it doesn't take a spill to emasculate alligators; agribusiness as usual will do the trick. Male alligators in three other Florida lakes, including huge Okeechobee, have depressed testosterone levels. Females have elevated levels of estradiol, the principal estrogen found in all vertebrates. The alligators also have problems with thyroid hormones, which govern brain development and metabolism."There have been no pesticide spills in these lakes, but they are surrounded by large farms that use pesticides heavily year round.Again, no smoking gun, but plenty of bullets scattered about. As I pointed out: "the chemistry of all life is similar. Something that can interfere with the operation of a fungus or a flea or a frog or an alligator could also interfere with us." That's why, when there's cause for suspicion, we should lean toward protecting public health rather than company profits.Webber throws in more non sequitors, such as: "The American chemical industry is among the most highly regulated in the world." Of course his organization regularly pushes to weaken those regulations, but now I'm being beside the point. More important, my article gave enough examples of damage to show that "most highly regulated" does not mean regulated enough to protect us."There are no more caring and conscientious nor better trained workers in any industry," Webber says, and I agree. I know many of them. I used to be one myself. I don't think anyone in the chemical industry wants to poison the world. But how many examples do we need of the world being poisoned before people in the industry, especially at the top, become humble enough to stop pretending that they know what they do not know and that they can control what they cannot control?Unfortunately, Webber ends with the lowest form of debate, a personal attack on his critic. "Her fears seem to arise from her own lack of knowledge, even thought her credentials list her as a part-time professor." I'd be happy to put my credentials up against Webber's any day, but again, that's not the point. The evidence in my column didn't come from me, it came from scientific journals, and it documents widespread harm from chemicals that continue to be used.Webber does not even acknowledge, much less answer, that evidence. He's too busy pointing in other directions. It's what magicians do, when they don't want you to catch on to their tricks.Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.