Tuesday, December 8, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

E-mail article     Print

Michelle Malkin

State's Envirocrats Are Setting Off False Alarms

Times Editorial Columnist

TACOMA - At a state Department of Ecology conference here last week, chemicals dominated the day. Participants exposed themselves to such hazards as benzo(a)pyrene, d-limonene, ethyl benzene, furan, furfural, and hydroquinone.

And that's just what was in the free coffee.

While they guzzled enough carcinogenic java to knock out three generations of lab rats, conference attendees raised alarms over a politically incorrect brew of chemical compounds called "bioaccumulative chemicals of concern" (BCCs) by state regulators - or "persistent organic pollutants" (POPs) by the feds.

Solid scientific evidence of harm to Washington residents is scant to nonexistent, yet 27 chemical culprits are on Ecology's most-wanted list. The agency has declared its intention to "virtually eliminate" (sounds less extreme than "ban") this batch of chemicals at all costs by the year 2025.

After a charade of public input in coming months, the crusaders at Ecology plan to spend an infinite stream of your tax dollars zeroing out the Terrible 27. This seemingly reasonable program is as radical as it is wrong-headed. At bottom, it is about harvesting a commodity as toxic as any industrial chemical: power. The agency's expansive regulatory initiative is unprecedented in the U.S.

On Ecology's list are valuable fungicides and herbicides used by Washington wheat farmers and soybean growers. State officials admit they have not established whether affordable and effective substitutes for the targeted chemicals exist. Nor have they considered the economic disruption to life-saving pharmaceutical companies, manufacturers, farmers, food processors and countless other businesses statewide that would be affected.

If economics, sound science, and rationality don't defeat Ecology's scheme, one age-old obstacle will: Mother Nature.

Allan Felsot, professor in crop and soil sciences/environmental chemistry and toxicology at Washington State University, pointed out to me that more than half of Ecology's chemical targets occur naturally in the environment. Take No. 2 on the hit list: anthracene. Felsot notes that it is "naturally produced every time something burns" - whether from a stove, fireplace, industrial incinerator, or car.

No. 3, benzo(a)pyrene, causes cancer and genetic damage when fed to rats in high doses. Pumping up poor lab rodents with massive levels of almost anything will do that. Nevertheless, Carol Dansereau of the scare-mongering Washington Toxics Coalition is pushing the state to literally zero out every substance on the list. "Let's not play virtual reality games with our children's health," she demanded last week.

But let's get real: Benzo(a)pyrene is found naturally in bread, tea, coffee, and your favorite holiday pumpkin pie.

No. 6, cadmium and compounds, are natural constituents of rock and soil. No. 18, mercury and compounds, are also manufactured naturally. No. 24 includes the infamous chemical families of dioxins and furans. Environmental activists are intent on crippling the pulp and paper industries, which produce these substances as byproducts of industrial combustion processes. But true zero tolerance would also mean an end to volcanoes and forest fires, from which researchers have reported natural dioxin emissions.

Several conference participants invoked an award-winning Times series, "Fear in the Fields," as evidence of the health threats posed by BCCs. The articles exposed how some heavy metals and dioxins were being recycled into fertilizer. The series mentioned sickly cows and kids with "high levels" of heavy metals in their hair. It caused a legislative frenzy. But it never provided credible evidence connecting exposure to fertilizers to any single, specific human health malady. The Department of Ecology's own researchers reported last week that there is no evidence "that human health is threatened by the fertilizers used on farmland in Washington."

And, professor Felsot notes: "Several studies show that even if dioxin is depositing in soil, uptake by crops is negligible. One reason is that dioxins are strongly bound to soil and show almost no capability for transfer from the soil to the root and from the root into the stem."

Nonetheless, regulators and eco-activists, aided by news reports, continue to cook up chemical hysteria based on discredited,

incomplete, or advocacy research. The "hormone-disrupting" synergy of Ecology's 27 targets, for example, was treated as gospel by many conference participants. But the most prominent, peer-reviewed study used to indict a "toxic cocktail" of synthetic chemicals as endocrine disruptors, published by Tulane University researchers in 1996, was retracted last summer in the journal Science. Neither the authors nor any other research team has been able to replicate the results.

Ecology officials are looking north for how best to ignore the facts and expand their governmental authority through fear. "It's better to act than to wait until we know more," advised Andrew Gilman of Health Canada. His agency recently scared the pants off Canadians by sponsoring a baseless panic over plastic toys targeted by Greenpeace radicals.

But caving in to environmental radicals and technophobes is a sorry model for responsible regulation. As former governor and environmental skeptic Dixy Lee Ray once quipped: "The reality is that zero defects in products plus zero pollution plus zero risk on the job is equivalent to maximum growth of government plus zero economic growth plus runaway inflation."

Hold onto your Starbucks mugs. We're headed back to the Stone Ages.

Michelle Malkin's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is:

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


Get home delivery today!