Embarrassing Questions


Science Under Siege: Balancing Technology and the Environment, by Michael Fumento, New York: Morrow, 448 pages, $27.50

Technophobia is sweeping across America, and reading this book is a great antidote to its insidious spread. Every time viewers turn on the boob tube, they are assaulted by a relentless series of stories about how modern technology is causing cancer, birth defects, and miscarriages, poisoning people, and making modern life a living hell. This is nonsense, but few reporters, politicians, and scientists have the nerve to say so. Michael Fumento, a reporter for Investor's Business Daily, does say so as he meticulously debunks many of late 20th century's most prominent technoscares.

Think for a moment: How many people got cancer because of toxic waste at Love Canal? How many children died from consuming apples sprayed with Alar? How many residents died as a result of dioxin contamination at Times Beach, Missouri? Given the press play and the costly regulatory response to these once-famous contamination crises, you'd naturally think at least scores of people were harmed, right? Remember that the feds evacuated the residents of Love Canal and Times Beach and banned the ripening agent Alar.

In fact, not a single person died as consequence of ingesting chemical contaminants in any of these great mediagenic panics.

Fumento lays out in detail the chemophobia that inspires these frenzies of fear. One of his most valuable chapters deals with how substances are tested for carcinogenicity. Researchers feed lab rats the "maximum tolerated dose" (MTD) of a substance and then see if tumors start growing in the animals. That means rats are forced to consume chemicals just shy of the amount it would take to kill them by poisoning. For example, Alar causes cancer in mice when they are given a daily dose 266,000 times the amount consumed by the average schoolchild in a day. This is a realistic test?

Already, scientific support for MTD testing is slipping fast. In January, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report by a panel of cancer experts calling into question such testing. "The scientific data from hundreds of tests have come in and they are trying to lead us away from the use of the MTD," said panel member Richard Reitz. The NAS panel concluded that MTD should be used only until better methods are validated.

"The day will come, not too long from now, when dosing animals with massive amounts of chemicals and then declaring that this predicts cancer in humans at low doses will be literally laughed at, in the same way we now laugh at witch doctoring and entrail reading," writes Fumento.

Fumento reveals another secret: We are surrounded by carcinogens in our environment, and they are almost all natural. Plants are filled with natural pesticides to ward off insects and other predators. Fumento cites calculations by FDA scientists showing that food itself accounts for 98.8 percent of food-related cancer risk. Natural spices make up nearly 1 percent of the remaining risk. A total of 99.8 percent comes from natural sources. In fact, once all synthetics are taken into account, not just those in food, only about 500 of the more than 500,000 cancer deaths each year can be attributed to synthetic chemicals. This is a crisis?

Fumento also deals body blows to the quack science practiced by techno-scaremonger Paul Brodeur. Brodeur has made a career out of claiming that the weak electromagnetic fields generated by power lines and household appliances are causing cancer. Fumento surveys hundreds of studies and finds that the vast majority show no relation between the typical electromagnetic fields people encounter and the incidence of cancer.

The most recent outbreak of microwave madness revolved around claims that cellular telephones cause brain cancer. A Florida man claimed on CNN's Larry King Live that his wife got brain cancer from her cellular telephone. This is a classic example of the "victim as epidemiologist" phenomenon.

"Being a victim of a disease does not make one an expert in how that disease is contracted," observes Fumento. There is no credible evidence which shows that the microwaves emitted from cellular telephones cause cancer. But never mind, the crisis is on.

Fumento offers a quick primer on the art and science of risk assessment and shows how the press, public, and politicians often misunderstand (sometimes deliberately so) how to calculate real risks. He takes apart other popular technoscares, showing that the claim "dioxin is the deadliest man-made substance known" should be changed to "dioxin is the deadliest man-made substance known for killing guinea pigs." Hamsters, on the other hand, can practically season their chow with dioxin. It takes a dose 1,900 times higher to do in hamsters. (This vast difference in toxicity should give people pause about extrapolating test-animal results to human beings.)

In addition, Fumento thoroughly debunks asbestos scaremongers, anti-food irradiation activism, and the sleazy political deals that have led to requiring that gasohol be used in some cities during the winter months. My only complaint is that Fumento didn't have the space to deal with the "acid rain" fiasco. Ten years and $500 million dollars of study have shown that acid rain is not harming lakes, forests, crops, or people in Canada and the northeastern United States.

Fumento is to be congratulated for having the nerve to ask the technophobes: If modern life is so dangerous, how come we're all living healthier and much longer lives?

Contributing Editor Ronald Bailey is the author of Eco-Scam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse (St. Martin's Press) and the 1993 Warren T. Brookes Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.