The Week That Was
August 17-23, 1997

We've been singing the praises of Alan Cutler's article, "The Little Ice Age: When Global Cooling Gripped the World," which ran in the August 13th Washington Post "Horizon" section. Cutler, a visiting scientist at the National Museum of Natural History, does an outstanding job conveying the ups and downs of climate change, and why it's so hard to tell what is natural and what may be human-induced. Really terrific. Every time we see an article like this in the Washington Post, we're reminded of that old nursery rhyme--when it's good it's very, very good and when it's bad...well, when it's bad it must be the "Outlook" section.

Activists are still on course in their campaign to avoid scientific data altogether and to base health and environmental policies solely on what they consider "bad." Data, of course, has gotten a bum rap ever since author Mark Twain made that rather caustic remark about "lies, damned lies, and statistics." Wonderful things can be done with statistics. When two quantities rise at the same time, for example, some researcher invariably decide there's a cause-and-effect relationship and use it to secure a hefty research grant. For activists, only one quantity needs to rise, and then they can link it to virtually anything. EPA Administrator Carol Browner linked an increase in children's asthma to outdoor air pollution and used it as an excuse to tighten air quality standards; last week Frank O'Donnell of the Clean Air Trust found a similar link between Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and outdoor air pollution and used it to support the same regulation. What Browner and O'Donnell failed to mention is that air pollution has actually decreased by 30 percent. Does that mean cleaning up the air causes asthma and SIDS?

For those who haven't heard--scientists at Tulane University pulled their research on environmental estrogen two weeks ago after no one could duplicate their results. (Actually, they couldn't even duplicate their own results!) That action must have made for some long faces at the Environmental Protection Agency. With Congress axing the Delaney Amendment and new research results steadily shortening the hit list of carcinogens, the EPA has been hyping "environmental estrogen" as its next line of defense against possible budget cuts. Now it's back to the drawing board.

Actually, the Tulane researchers should be commended. Would that others were as willing to retract spurious results. Some of us made that suggestion back in 1993, when two Canadian atmospheric scientists, Kerr and McElroy, published a four-year study of ultraviolet radiation over Toronto, which claimed to show an annual UV increase of as much as 35 percent. Kerr and McElroy linked it to a depleting ozone layer, reporters like Dan Rather at CBS News spread the alarm, mothers rushed to get their kiddies out of the sunshine, and ozone guru F. Sherwood Rowland, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, remarked cryptically: "At last we have good data." Well, the data may have been good, but the analysis was a stinker. As Patrick Michaels and Fred Singer showed in a critique, published in Science, the "trend" was non-existent. Nevertheless, the authors never retracted their claim, and their study is still being cited by the EPA. We figure that, by now, UV over Canada should have increased by about 200 percent. Anybody passing out sunscreen to the Eskimos?

Wrapping up the week, the British medical journal Lancet reported that an outbreak of acute hepatitis and other liver disorders among factory workers has been linked to HCFCs, the refrigerants now replacing CFCs in refrigerators and air conditioning systems. According to Lancet, scientists at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium and at the University of Seattle said the outbreak raised concerns about the growing use of the Freon substitutes. "Safer alternatives should be developed urgently," they said.

This is bad news for chemical companies, who were banking on keeping the very profitable HCFCs on the market until their brand-new patents expired. But in the rush to take the completely benign (non-toxic, non-corrosive, non-carcinogenic) CFCs off the market for allegedly destroying the global ozone layer, the Environmental Protection Agency downplayed early studies pointing to potential human health risks. With this new report, let's hope the EPA remembered to pick up the tab for the chemical firms' liability insurance.

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