The New York Times continues its grand tradition of always letting its ideology trump sound science and journalism at every opportunity. In a 25-page opus last weekend, they published a piece seeming to portray an evil corporate entity callously and recklessly poisoning the water in an Ohio river watershed home to 100,000 innocent people. They published this now to further their crusade to "reform" the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which was enacted in 1976, and has been the cornerstone of chemical regulation, up till now.
A few days thereafter, the Times published an editorial with the somewhat exaggerated title, "Despite Clear Dangers, DuPont Kept Using a Toxic Chemical," which was based on the aformentioned magazine article they underwrote.
There are only a few things wrong with their approach:
*a careful review of the excruciatingly detailed evidence fails to show a knowing pattern of illegal activity by DuPont regarding the chemical dumping, since the chemical in question was not then (and — surprise! — is still not) regulated!;
*the chemical in question (PFOA) is in fact ubiquitous and has not been definitely linked in a causal manner with any known disease;
*the "clear dangers" part is still far from clear decades later; indeed, it took the EPA over 7 years of studies to find out that PFOA was merely suspected to be linked to any disease whatsoever, and it is still not regulated as a toxic chemical;
*the Times should chill out anyway, as their goal, TSCA revision, is going to be passed sometime soon. (Take a victory lap, Times).
Sadly, the new provisions of the "Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century" bill will not make our chemicals any safer than they always have been, but will make the process for getting innovative and useful products on to the market, and provide a lifetime employment guarantee for EPA bureaucrats.
The Sunday NYTimes magazine on January 10th published a lengthy article highlighting the intrepid efforts of attorney Rob Bilott, who (in 1998) decided to take the case of a West Virginia (WVa) farmer whose cows were dying "left and right," and was certain that the nearby DuPont plant's chemical dumping was responsible. His firm was well known for defending corporate clients, so this decision was quite a big step, especially since he was on the verge of making partner and the target was one of the biggest companies in America and the region's leading employer.
The article, "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare," details Bilott's 13-year long crusade to find a "smoking gun" with which to prove that the dumping of the chemical in question — perfluorooctanoic acid, PFOA — was done illegally and with guilty knowledge thereof, and was a cause of illness not only in cows, but in people too. The tons of PFOA dumped into the Ohio River eventually reached the drinking water and the bloodstreams of about 100,000 residents of WVa and Ohio who lived near the river — and subsequently it was detected as well in the blood of Americans far and wide, although the specific source of that exposure was not so clear (PFOA was also being made and used by 3M in Minnesota).
Attorney Bilott became intrigued by a neighbor's tale of unusual wildlife and farm animal ailments and foamy streams apparently emanating from the nearby DuPont chemical plant. His suspicions were further inflamed when his inquiries to veterinarians were not returned. He decided that "something was really bad here." He requested reams of data, was turned down (quite expectedly), and then got a court order to comply: he should perhaps have been careful what he wished for, when 100,000+ pages of chemical data arrived.
So he spent most of the next thirteen years (!) sorting through papers, sitting cross-legged on his office floor (he did make partner after all though). He discovered some communications indicating that the DuPont chemists were also concerned about the unknown toxicity of PFOA, which when combined with the unusual animal illnesses and a litany of human complaints, got the firm a class-action windfall of a bit over $20 million.
That could have been the Big Win for the class of thousands of WVa residents, but Bilott could not stop there. He pursued the claim for medical compensation and sort-of won again, getting the court to order medical monitoring for the 70,000 members of the class. Another seven years passed, and the massive amount of medical information from twelve separate medical studies finally found the answer, again, sort-of.
There was no smoking gun. The epidemiology showed there was a ‘‘probable link’’ between PFOA and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia and ulcerative colitis. No biologically plausible explanation for how PFOA might actually be causal in these disparate condition, nor is one necessary: it is likely that DuPont will be paying off thousands of "poisoned" residents of the Ohio River drainage area for years to come.
Today, PFOA is listed by the hyper-precautionary IARC, the cancer-causation agency under the UN/WHO, as a 2B, "possibly carcinogenic to humans" chemical, the same group as coffee and cellphones. The National Toxicology Program has determined that it causes some types of cancer in rodents (at high doses) and is currently undergoing still more tests there.
From the article, again: "Every year Rob Bilott writes a letter to the E.P.A. and the West Virginia D.E.P., urging the regulation of PFOA in drinking water. In 2009, the E.P.A. set a ‘‘provisional’’ limit of 0.4 parts per billion for short-term exposure, but has never finalized that figure....
Meaning: there is still no regulatory issue regarding PFOA. If PFOA is actually toxic to humans, it is highly probable that its effects cannot be discerned from exposure via drinking water.
"Where scientists have tested for the presence of PFOA in the world, they have found it...."
Meaning: PFOA is everywhere, in all of us. So what? With our current sophisticated scientific analytical technologies, we can find anything in anyone down to parts per quadrillion. To extrapolate from the presence of a chemical (or any substance) to infer toxicity is a favorite tactic of environmental alarmists. EG, groups such as EWG and NRDC test a bunch of people for substance X and find it in 89%, and then declare that we're all being poisoned by industrial chemicals, whether there is any evidence of chemical toxicity or not.
"We see a situation,’’ [one of the litigation plaintiffs] Joe Kiger says, ‘‘that has gone from Washington Works [the WVa DuPont facility], to statewide, to the United States, and now it’s everywhere, it’s global. But it’s just not DuPont. Good God. There are 60,000 unregulated chemicals out there right now. We have no idea what we’re taking.’’ Imagine if we, the people, had to spend even a fraction of the time and money that Rob Bilott's legal team did over the course of a decade and a half on one chemical, on the other thousands of "unregulated chemicals" before we were allowed to keep them on the market. As it stands now, the EPA is perfectly able to review and regulate any chemical that shows any evidence of toxicity, for animals, people or the environment. Testing each and every one of them before entering the stream of commerce? Sure--if you've got a few billion dollars and a couple of decades to spare.
The essence of this article is that we are surrounded by, drowning in unregulated toxic chemicals with god-knows-what effects on us, our children, our grandchildren, and so on. This is a habitual refrain of the chemophobic enviro-activist groups, especially such as NRDC. A few years ago, they testified at the US Senate that there were "42 active chemical toxic sites causing disease clusters in America," as part of their longstanding crusade to revise TSCA. My organization, ACSH, did an investigation of their claims and found one--one-- of those sites as an actual toxic dump site. We published our exposé here.
And a final thrust from the magazine story: "PFOA and its replacements are suspected to belong to a large class of artificial compounds called endocrine-disrupting chemicals; these compounds, which include chemicals used in the production of pesticides, plastics and gasoline, interfere with human reproduction and metabolism and cause cancer, thyroid problems and nervous-system disorders. In the last five years, however, a new wave of endocrinology research has found that even extremely low doses of such chemicals can create significant health problems....[the writer calls upon Congress to] "[e]nact legislation to require only essential uses of PFASs’’ and ‘‘Whenever possible, avoid products containing, or manufactured using, PFASs. These include many products that are stain-resistant, waterproof or nonstick.’’
So it's back to the "endocrine disruptor" theory, now in concert with the "low-dose" theory in which tiny levels of a chemical can do bad things that larger doses do not. These are vague and wastebasket terms that have no meaning in the real world of medicine and science, but are useful for advocacy groups to push a regulatory agenda.
"Bilott doesn’t regret fighting DuPont for the last 16 years, nor for letting PFOA consume his career." Well, good for him — I hope that he is satisfied that his crusade has paid off, for him, his firm and the three-thousand-plus "poisoned" resident of Wva and Ohio who are waiting in queue to either get their settlement money — unlikely — or to await their turn in an endless string of trials vs. DuPont.