Greens vs. Science: Ignorance Trumps Evidence In Ecology's Approach to "Toxics"
Earlier this week, an article in the Seattle Times quoted Washington State Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant saying he was concerned that "new pollution" was undoing the cleanup of Commencement Bay in Tacoma. The new pollution, however, is not the toxic sediment being removed from the Bay. The article notes that the new "contaminants are called phthalates, used in piping, packaging, soft plastic toys and many other products."
Sturdevant is calling for increased spending by the state and federal government and for new regulations on phthalates and other chemicals. What is most striking, however, is Sturdevant's justification for the spending and regulation.
Rather than arguing that scientific data call for the restrictions, Sturdevant says "Is this stuff safe or not? Without a clear answer from an effective federal agency, then we are left to figure that on our own." In other words not science, but ignorance is the reason for regulation.
This is a remarkable standard that actually encourages ignorance by making it the friend of the regulator. As long as a regulator can say they don't know enough, without defining what "enough" is, they can ban anything they don't like for any reason.
It is clear that there is never "enough" for some. The environmental community and Ecology continue to warn of the risks of bisphenol A (BPA) even after the Pacific Northwest National Laboratories, the EPA and Centers for Disease Control published a study showing that levels of BPA in the blood are "orders of magnitude lower than those causing effects in rodents exposed to BPA." Ignorance trumps science since regulators can still express vague concerns without data -- indeed, in opposition to scientific data -- to justify those concerns.
This is a fundamentally anti-science position because it values ignorance over science. Cass Sunstein, President Obama's "Regulation Czar" has called this concept, known as The Precautionary Principle, "logically incoherent." He notes that such an approach values any conceivable risk higher than the costs of doing nothing despite the fact that doing nothing carries its own risks. If we do ban phthalates, what have we lost in terms of products, consumer choice and prosperity? On the environmental side, what replaces them -- something with even greater risks?
Ultimately, in the absence of clear standards for what constitutes an acceptable level of scientific certainty (which do not exist) all decisions would be made based on the whims of individuals or political pressure brought on regulators to approve or disapprove any particular compound. For an agency that claims to follow the science, few things could debase real science more than this mindset.