Misleading the public over toxic chemicals

Some environmentalists are misleading the public over toxic chemicals in the environment, focussing on their presence and ignoring the amounts involved.

Having myself criticised environmentalists who go overboard in order to attract media attention and spread fear, it’s always good to see scientists fighting back against bad science and public deception.

Leading toxicologists are taking WWF to task for their scare-mongering over the presence of toxic chemicals in blood, food and babies’ umbilical cords. The barely-measurable levels of the substances in question may indicate problems with leaks in industrial processes, but to focus on the mere presence of the chemicals, and not consider the amounts involved, is misleading.

We expose ourselves daily to toxic chemicals, and some entirely natural foodstuffs are poisonous when consumed in large amounts. The mistake that WWF and other environmental groups make is to claim that if a substance is not known to be completely safe, it is dangerous. This is a total perversion of the precautionary principle, and the danger is that such an extreme stance brings environmentalism into disrepute.

Proper perspective goes out the window when it comes to public discussion of toxic materials in the environment, and a classic example of this is the pesticide DDT. There are no conclusive scientific studies showing that DDT is particularly harmful to human health. It is undoubtedly a powerful chemical agent, and should be used with great care, but its removal from the approved list of insecticides – partly as a result of Rachel Carson’s emotive tract “Silent Spring” – has led to far more deaths from Malaria than could ever have resulted from the toxic effects of the chemical.

Public debate on chemicals in the environment has become so corrupted by sloppy environmentalism and bad science that the word “chemical” is now synonymous with “toxic”. We even talk of healthy foods being free of “chemicals”, when they are in fact nothing but a combination of chemicals. It’s about time that the scientific community counter-campaigned on this issue, while upholding legitimate concerns raised by the presence of human-introduced toxins in the natural environment.

Keywords: science bad-science environment chemistry