Politics of Fear Makes Bad Policy

The American people enjoy the most freedom and the highest standard of living, including healthier and longer lives, of any group in human history. Yet many remain concerned that environmental pollution poses a grave risk. This seeming paradox is worth examination.

The 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's The Silent Spring is widely credited for increasing public awareness of the harmful effects of pesticides on wildlife. DDT, in particular, was vilified for thinning the shells of birds' eggs and was subsequently banned despite the compound's usefulness in crop protection as well as controlling the mosquito-borne malaria that now kills some one million children a year.

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This imbalance between risk and reward has persisted ever since, with hype and fear mongering (and the tort bar) demonizing utilitarian resources such as asbestos, saccharin, Alar, EDB and dozens more. Among the most maligned is dioxin, which is now the target of a "public health consultation" conducted by the Michigan Department of Community Health, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. (The case was opened in response to a petition from a Midland, Michigan citizen and two environmental groups.) No evidence of risk to public health or the environment has yet been established.

Dioxin is a byproduct of chorine and combustion produced from industrial processes, natural phenomenon (such as forest fires) and even cooking. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 94 percent of the dioxin in our environment comes from organic sources. Its ubiquity demonstrates how we live longer, healthier lives despite being exposed to potentially dangerous substances.

Our understanding of the effects of dioxin is primarily grounded in two notable incidents in Seveso, Italy, in 1976, and in Times Beach, Missouri, in 1982.

The Seveso case involved a major industrial accident during which dioxin inundated the town. In the weeks that followed, rabbits and farm animals died by the hundreds. The most common effect observed in humans was chloracne, a type of skin rash, although alarmed residents of the town reported a variety of other symptoms. Extensive epidemiological studies were undertaken to understand the acute and long-term effects.

The Times Beach incident involved dioxin-laced oils sprayed on dirt roads to control dust. The EPA commenced soil testing in the area after the death of some horses, and dioxin was identified as the cause. After a major flood of the Mississippi River struck the town in 1982, citizens were evacuated. But as residents were preparing to return to their homes, federal inspectors released test results showing high levels of dioxin in the soil. The federal Centers for Disease Control warned residents not to return to Times Beach, and the politics of fear was in full flower. By February 1983, the EPA announced that the government would buy all of the homes in Times Beach at a cost of $33 million. But the buyout couldn't possibly cover the true costs of the disruption.

Subsequent tests of Times Beach residents showed no evidence of increased illness, and in 1991 the EPA admitted it had been mistaken about the degree of risk.

In Midland, soil sampling over the past two decades has indicated little risk and the community has solid statistical data on public health, including hundreds of residents who have worked their entire careers in the chemical industry.

Rather than surrender to the politics of fear, the citizens of Midland should take note of the lessons learned from Seveso and Times Beach - and we should demand that our public officials find more useful ways to spend our tax dollars.

Kent Davis is senior advisor for science for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan. Davis has 36 years of industry experience with technology, manufacturing, and management positions, previously working for the Dow Chemical Company. He has written and advised on global warming and other environmental issues.