Examples have become more frequent as special interests promote health scares as a way to raise funds or to support litigation. The distortion of science has given rise to flawed policies and regulations, interference with research that offers potential benefits to society, unwarranted scares, frivolous lawsuits, and actual threats to public health. Examples include:
- Two decades ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council spurred a national panic by asserting that the agricultural chemical Alar, which synchronizes the ripening of apples, posed a cancer risk to children. The claim was later determined to be false, but not before it had devastated apple growers.
- Long Island activists had long claimed that the elevated breast cancer rate there is the result of exposure to environmental chemicals like PCBs and DDT, and demanded that federal regulators investigate. However, they were unable to find evidence for that hypothesis—because their basic assumption was incorrect: There is no elevated breast cancer rate in that area.
- In 1998, British researchers published a study that alleged an association, but not causation, between the administration of MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine and an increased risk of autism. That prompted speculation that the culprit might be thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative in the vaccine.
In spite of the fact that the initial study was based on only 12 children, its results were widely publicized, causing some parents and hospitals to stop or delay vaccinations for newborns and children.
Subsequent studies of much larger groups of children failed to confirm such an association, and the author is under investigation for falsifying data in the study.
The overwhelming consensus among scientists and physicians is that no such link exists. Nevertheless, this false report inflicted incalculable damage on the public’s confidence in vaccination and on children whose parents denied them protection from life-threatening but preventable diseases.
- A dubious NGO called the Environmental Working Group (EWG) claimed to have evidence that the farm-raised salmon eaten regularly by millions of Americans contained high levels of PCBs. This group of chemicals was identified in the press coverage as a toxin, probable human carcinogen, or a cause of cancer and nervous system damage. These reports were grossly misleading. At levels of environmental exposure, PCBs have not been shown to cause cancer or any other harm to humans.
The study, which was based on a sample of only 10 fish, was condemned by genuine experts at a variety of institutions, including the Harvard School of Public Health, the FDA, and the American Council on Science and Health.
Unfortunately, the criticisms came only after EWG’s report had generated national media coverage, and the contrary views of experts received little attention from the media. On its website, the EWG makes no pretense about its possessing scientific credentials or expertise, and its president once admitted to a journalist that there was not a single physician or scientist on its staff.
- Environmental activists remain intractably opposed to the spraying of DDT to prevent mosquito-borne diseases. Since the banning of DDT, diseases such as malaria and dengue have been on the rise.
In fact, the huge toll of diseases spread by mosquitos caused some public health officials to rethink DDT’s use: In 2006, after 25 years and 50 million preventable deaths, the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) reversed course and endorsed the use of DDT to kill and repel malaria-causing mosquitoes. Inexplicably, in May, WHO reverted to the endorsement of less effective, more expensive methods for preventing the disease.
Those opposed to the use of DDT fail to take into consideration the inadequacy of alternatives. Because it persists after spraying, DDT works far better than many pesticides now in use, some of which are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms.
With DDT unavailable, many mosquito-control authorities are depleting their budgets by repeated spraying with short-acting, marginally effective insecticides. Moreover, even if mosquitoes become resistant to the killing effects of DDT, they are still repelled by it. An occasional dusting of window- and door-frames is extremely effective.
- During the past decade or so, activists have alleged that hormonally active compounds in the environment, which are known to be present in minuscule amounts, are causing reproductive and developmental problems in wildlife and humans. There is a difference, however, between plausibility and provability, and formal scientific studies have not shown any link between environmental agents and the suspected adverse effects. Ironically, much of the human exposure to estrogenic substances is from food, especially soy products. Thus, on the basis of current knowledge, the claim of an estrogenic assault on males and females is pure speculation.
- The mysterious disappearance over the past several years of honey bees from hives, known as colony collapse disorder (CCD) or honey bee depopulation syndrome (HBDS), captured the attention of the media. It also stirred the imagination of environmental activists, who, in the absence of a known cause of the phenomenon, vociferously blamed it on everything from pesticides and gene-spliced crop varieties to cell phones and global warming.
New scientific evidence strongly suggests that the culprit is none of those things, but rather an infestation by a fungus, Nosema ceranae. Researchers who studied a number of professional hives in two regions of Spain that experienced a syndrome akin to CCD found that the fungus was the only pathogen observed in all cases, that pesticides seemed not to be involved, and that application of the antifungal agent fumagillin to affected colonies proved effective in stopping reinfection and improving survival.
The activists have been strangely silent, and the media have ignored this important finding. Not apocalyptic enough, apparently; merely the insect equivalent of a dog-bites-man story.