When Environmental Science Catches Up With the Environmental Scares
It may take some time, but good science often catches up with the political claims. Here are three examples from just the last few weeks.
Was Erin Brockovich Wrong?
Recent research in Hinkley, California, the town made famous by the film Erin Brockovich, has seriously called her claims into question. Brockovich claimed that PG&E had poisoned the residents of that community with hexavalent chromium, leading to extremely high cancer rates. Research from a highly respected epidemiologist using the California Cancer Registry found the rate of cancer in the community was actually slightly lower than average. He told the LA Times, “we did look at a dozen cancer types in earlier surveys of the same census tract for the years between 1988 and 1998. Overall, the results of those surveys were almost identical to the new findings, and none of the cancers represented a statistical excess.”
Oceanic “garbage patch” not nearly as big as portrayed in media
As part of the justification to ban plastic bags, many politicians and environmental activists have pointed to the existence of a giant patch of plastic garbage in the ocean they claimed was “twice the size of Texas.” New research from Oregon State University shows this is wildly inaccurate. Complaining that “exaggeration undermines the credibility of scientists,” Oregon State scientist Angelicque White noted “using the highest concentrations ever reported by scientists produces a patch that is a small fraction of the state of Texas, not twice the size.”
Additionally, the amount of plastic in the ocean isn’t increasing. The Oregon State piece notes “Recent research by scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found that the amount of plastic, at least in the Atlantic Ocean, hasn’t increased since the mid-1980s – despite greater production and consumption of materials made from plastic.”
Link between vaccines and autism proves to be forged
Environmental activists have been among those pushing the claim that a vaccine preservative called Thimerosal, derived from mercury, caused autism. Previous research showed the link to be false, noting “Researchers from the state Department of Public Health found the autism rate in children rose continuously during the 12-year study period from 1995 to 2007. The preservative thimerosal has not been used in childhood vaccines since 2001…”
Now, new research goes even further, saying the “study’s claims were not only incorrect, but part of 'an elaborate fraud.' ” While some claim better safe than sorry, the result has not been benign. The Wall Street Journal notes “Vaccination rates went down in many countries following the Lancet paper’s publication and subsequent to-do. Meantime, measles outbreaks have been linked to parents who didn’t immunize their kids.”
These distortions of science harm the credibility of science and impose unnecessary economic costs. Just as important, however, is that these distortions also harm the environment by distracting us from real issues that harm the environment or human health. Those who pushed these scares should be willing to admit they did more harm than good.