We equate nature with simplicity, humans with toxicity

Mona Charen

April 12, 1993|By Mona Charen

A SINGLE individual files a lawsuit alleging that his wife's terminal brain cancer was caused by a cellular telephone and panic sweeps the industry. Stocks of cellular phone companies plunge overnight. (Though such is the ingenuity of capitalism that several weeks later several "cancer-proof" cellular phones are already in development.)

This story is only the most extreme example of a widespread phenomenon in our society. It is the belief, most fervently cherished by environmentalists -- but transmitted through the press to the rest of us -- that man's hubris in invention and science is meeting with the terrible retribution of Mother Nature. As Prometheus was punished for bringing fire to humans, we are being punished -- with cancer in the short run and complete destruction of the ecosphere in the long run -- for using pesticides, enjoying air conditioners and building suburbs.

The panics which have proved to be scientifically groundless are familiar. The fright about Alar, a coloring agent on apples, was later proved to be a complete farce. So too was dioxin, once called the most toxic substance known to man, revealed to be much less harmful. It is im- possible to say how many children have been put at needless risk because schools chose to remove asbestos from school insulation. It turns out that asbestos left in walls and ceilings is quite benign (not to say helpful in retarding fire). It is only when it is ripped out, releasing tiny particles into the air, that it can cause problems.

The simplistic view of nature vs. human that equates nature with benevolence and humans with toxicity got an overdue jolt a few months ago with the outbreak of E coli poisoning in the Northwest. Three toddlers died and 450 others had to be hospitalized after a common bacterium, E coli, was found in fast-food hamburgers. Nature can be malevolent too. Such food-borne illnesses used to kill large numbers of people every year, before humankind's hubris came up with pesticides and refrigeration.

The E coli outbreak could have been prevented. Irradiation -- currently in widespread use on medical instruments -- is a cheap, safe and extremely effective means of killing off bacteria like E coli. Yet hysteria about all things nuclear prevents this technology from saving lives.

Americans are peculiarly susceptible to the idea that life can be made risk-free. Perhaps our very success in battling illnesses from polio to trichinosis has given rise to resentment that we continue to be prey to any disease at all. Amity Shlaes of the Wall Street Journal has observed that one reason medical costs are better contained under the German system is that "Germans expect to die." Accordingly, they do not run up the huge costs Americans do in the final weeks of life.

Our hysteria about imagined dangers -- and our unwillingness to accept the inevitability of some dangers -- contribute to our seeming paralysis at analyzing comparative risk. Yes, if a nuclear power plant has an extremely unlikely meltdown, many people would be hurt. But we seem unable to contrast that remote catastrophe with benefits like cleaner air and fewer coal-mining accidents.

In 1958, the Congress of the United States passed a foolish law called the "Delaney clause," which forbids the use of any pesticide that causes cancer in laboratory animals. The trouble is, if you feed enough of any substance to lab rats, they get cancer. The amount of cancer-causing chemicals that occur naturally in mushrooms and broccoli would cause those products to be banned by the Environmental Protection Agency if they were subject to the Delaney clause.

According to Investor's Business Daily, studies show that only 1 percent to 3 percent of cancers are caused by environmental exposure to manmade substances. Yet eating large amounts of fruits and vegetables is urged as a cancer preventative. Moreover, 30 percent of cancers are known to result from such behavior as smoking.

The new chief of the EPA, Carol Browner, made a promising start when she said that the Delaney clause was a scientific anachronism that would jeopardize the abundant U.S. food supply if strictly enforced. That was the most sensible statement to emerge from a government agency in recent memory. Naturally, it was soon recanted.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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