The Media's War On Essential Chemicals: Targeting Chlorine





The problem? It's the "bedrock chemicals of the postwar age," she reports -- those PCBs used in electronics manufacturing, those pesticides, those plastics used in baby bottles, those compounds used to bleach paper. They mimic the hormone estrogen and, depending on the level of exposure, retard sexual development. Alligators are suffering the effects of living in a sea of "gender-bending chemicals," and so, Ms. Begley warns chillingly, are humans.

"While it's too soon to say that `background' levels of estrogen-like chemicals are responsible for the decline and fall of Western manhood," she said, "the case against high levels of the chemicals is clear-cut."

The Newsweek article is the latest in a long line of attacks on chlorine or chlorine compounds, including PCBs, DDT and dioxin. Many of the individual compounds already have been the targets of organized campaigns in the environmental movement and journalistic circles. Ms. Begley's article simply takes the campaign one step further with a tabloid-like focus on sexual organs.

But like her predecessors, she is longer on hair-raising language than she is on science. Much of her evidence is anecdotal: The story goes that the researcher on whom she depended for the alligator tales turns out to have met another researcher who had seen something similar happen to lab mice exposed to DDE, which forms when DDT decomposes. As it happens, "thousands of gallons" of DDT ended up in the lake during a spill.

It's an interesting theory, of course, but the article cites no exposure data. How much did the animals get? Over what period of time?

Ms. Begley simply piles on the horrors: human male sperm counts are tumbling, testicular cancer is tripling, Florida panthers are suffering reproductive problems, cases of endometriosis (inflammation of the uterine lining that can cause infertility) are rising. She manages in some way or other to trace them all to estrogen-like compounds and chlorine. But her data are sketchy or non-existent.

Down With Chlorine

Begley's reporting on chlorine is emblematic of the campaign against the chemical. When the Clinton Administration unveiled its proposed overhaul of the 1972 Clean Water Act, environmentalists saw a long-cherished dream come true. There in the draft was a provision that called for "substituting, reducing or prohibiting the use of chlorine or chlorinated compounds" now used in thousands of products, including plastics, medicine and even drinking water.

Chlorine is a component of a huge number of compounds that as a group contain both good and bad actors. Attacking chlorinated compounds as a class is unprecedented and without any scientific basis.

However, activists have for years linked chlorinated compounds to assorted health and environmental problems. "We think this is the most meaningful position taken by the Administration in keeping with their campaign rhetoric on pollution prevention since they have taken office," Rick Hind, legislative director of the Greenpeace Toxics Campaign, told The Wall Street Journal.

The Journal and other members of the media quoted environmentalists, chlorine manufacturers and government officials in connection with the proposed phase-out announced in February 1994. USA Today did that and more, creating a snappy graphic of chlorine pros and cons: On the one hand, chlorine-related industries employ lots of people -- tens of thousands in the Great Lakes region alone. On the other hand, chlorine-based pollution has grim "effects" on human and animal life, the newspaper reported. Allegedly, it causes memory problems, stunted growth and cancer in humans and eggshell thinning in bald eagles. In short, the chlorine controversy is about an unhappy standoff: between jobs and health.

A news account distributed by the Associated Press last October wouldn't concede even that much to chlorine manufacturers. Citing a Greenpeace report tying chlorine-based chemicals to rising breast-cancer incidence, the author went on to quote that "self-appointed toxicologist" Bella Abzug as favoring a complete ban. "Until now," she said, "the cancer establishment's emphasis has been on early detection, treatment and research. It's time to focus on prevention by eliminating the sources of chemical pollution that contribute to the breast cancer epidemic."

More revealing was language taken straight from the report itself, which acknowledged there is no proof that such "pollution" causes breast cancer. "If proof is defined as evidence beyond any doubt of a cause-effect link between individual chemicals and the disease...the answer is no," it said. But the report went on to suggest that it was "unethical" and "irresponsible" to wait for proof before acting because of the damage done in the meantime.

And what of the damage done by withdrawing from the market these chemicals if, in fact, the withdrawal turns out to be unnecessary? The Greenpeace study doesn't say, although one of the organochlorines it cites, dioxin, invites just such a question. When flood waters spread the substance through the small Missouri town of Times Beach early in the 1980's, government officials ordered the town evacuated at a cost of $ 33 million. A decade later, the federal official who ordered the action conceded that the inhabitants probably had not been in danger: "Given what we know about this chemical's toxicity and its effects on human health, it looks as though the evacuation was unnecessary."

What was missing then, and what's missing now in the chlorine controversy is science. The recent stories quote scientists sparingly or not at all. None quotes peer-reviewed articles. None mentions that chlorine fears spring in large part from high-dose animal-to-man extrapolations. Instead, each attempts to cover the scientific issues related to chlorine as though they were merely political. According to the iron-clad rules of journalism, handed down from one generation of reporters to the next, that means covering the chlorine controversy as follows: First talk to the regulators. Then talk to "industry spokesmen." Then talk to environmentalist critics. (Steps two and three may be reversed for novelty.) Put it all together, and you have a "balanced" story.

But this sort of balance is unenlightening to the reader given that none of these sources is qualified to speak to the scientific merits of the controversy. For that a reporter might have called one of the scientists who put together a report on cancer mortality in relation to DDT, an organochlorine used to control insect-borne diseases, in the January 1989 issue of a well known scientific journal ("A Prospective Follow-Up Study of Cancer Mortality in Relation to Serum DDT," American Journal of Public Health, 1989; 79:43-6). The study's authors, Austin, et al., concluded, among other things, "The findings of this study do not support the hypothesis that exposure to DDT increases cancer mortality."

A subsequent study in the same journal suggested a positive association between consumption of chlorination by-products in drinking water and bladder and rectal cancer in humans. (Morris., et al., "Chlorination, Chlorination By-products and Cancer: A Meta-analysis," American Journal of Public Health, July 1992, 82:955-63) But the findings were qualified by the following: (1) "Individual epidemiological investigations into the association between chlorination by-products in drinking water and cancer have been suggestive but inconclusive." (2) "The most important potential confounder not adjusted for in these studies is diet." (3) "Precise cause and effect cannot be determined." (4) "Our findings are in no way intended to suggest that the disinfection of drinking water should be abandoned. The potential health risks of microbial contamination of drinking water greatly exceed the risks described above."

Or a reporter might have called Drs. Bruce Ames or Lois Swirsky Gold at the University of California at Berkeley for help putting the risks of chlorine-based chemicals in perspective. According to them, the cancer risk of a child swimming in a chlorinated pool is a fraction of that which comes from eating a peeled potato, which contains caffeic acid, a rodent carcinogen. Likewise the hazard of DDT in the diet, prior to the 1972 ban, was about that of drinking a cup of coffee (Phantom Risk, MIT Press, 1993, pp. 166-67).

What's also missing from the stories is any attempt to balance the relative risks of chlorine use, that is, the hazards of using chlorine versus the hazards of not using it. As Morris, et al., suggest, there are risks to not using chlorine. It kills large numbers of bacteria in its role as a drinking water disinfectant. It was vital to reducing typhoid mortality and helps reduce all types of water-borne diseases.

The World Health Organization estimates that 25,000 people die each day of diseases from water that has not been properly disinfected. That adds up to 9.1 million deaths per year. The American Cancer Society stated in a 1981 report that there "may be an indication of human carcinogenicity from water chlorination. The evidence is indirect and the level of increased risk is not great. Further observations are needed to be more certain that other cancer risk factors in the population (cigarette smoking, other chemical exposures) have been adequately accounted for in such studies."

Likewise, the loss of DDT-type compounds has health costs as well. They are effective at targeting the clouds of locusts that descend on African crops, wiping out harvests and leaving the continent more vulnerable to famine and disease. But the United States is prohibited by law from providing African nations with these compounds or the money to purchase them.

In short, a truly balanced story would not leave the chlorine controversy solely to regulators, businessmen and environmentalists. Far more people have a stake in the outcome than that, and it's up to the media to report it.

What Ted Said

Some reporters do manage to stay focused on the science in such controversies despite pressure to do otherwise. When Vice President Al Gore leaked information to Nightline anchor Ted Koppel in an attempt to link scientists critical of his pet global warming theories to politically incorrect groups, Mr. Koppel told viewers exactly where the material came from. He also closed the program with an unexpected rebuke. "There is some irony in the fact that Vice President Gore, one of the most scientifically literate men to sit in the White House in this century, is resorting to political means to achieve what should ultimately be resolved on a purely scientific basis....The measure of good science is neither the politics of the scientist nor the people with whom the scientist associates. It is the immersion of hypotheses into the acid of truth. That's the hard way to do it, but it's the only way that works."

American Council on Science and Health, Inc.


By Kenneth Smith

Share this with your friends