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New “Study” Attempts to Discredit Environmentalists' Claims and Concerns
(Beyond Pesticides, May 6, 2004)
A paper, recently released by the Competitive Enterprise Institute and described as a “study," fails in an attempt to discredit arguments made by environmental activists and organizations surrounding the use of pesticides for West Nile virus (WNv). Ironically, Beyond Pesticides was not one of the organizations specifically mentioned even though the organization has been working on the West Nile spraying controversy since the virus debuted in 1999.

In addition to the fringe diatribe against those who oppose the use of DDT, the author, Angela Logomasini, argues that “activists’ extreme views are coupled with alarmist rhetoric” that exaggerate the risks pesticides pose to human health and the environment. With phrases like “environmentalist hype,” “extreme views,” and “radical environmentalists,” the author fails to refrain from using unconstructive, inflammatory language that immediately removes any notion of neutrality from the analysis.

Using national cancer statistics and quotes from a few, select environmental activists or activist forums, the author continually makes wide sweeping statements about the arguments of presumably all environmental activists but fails to substantiate the accusation with actual quotes. For example, she writes that, environmental groups are “fighting any reasonable use of chemicals or other so-called ‘unnatural’ means for vector control” and that, “many groups claim that mosquito control efforts have little or no impact on mosquito populations.” Yet, every activist website she cites is primarily critical of the widespread spraying of pesticides used to kill adult mosquitoes rather than critical of all “mosquito control efforts." Additionally, nearly every website she cites suggests non-toxic or least toxic alternatives to spraying, some of which include the use of pesticides.

Alternatives cited by most groups include those highlighted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Mosquito Control Association as the most effective means of battling mosquito-borne diseases. These include source reduction and the elimination of mosquito breeding sites, particularly on private property; least toxic larval control using microbial insecticides such as Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (Bti) that can more effectively target the mosquitoes before they become biting adults; biological controls that include natural mosquito predators; and public education that emphasizes personal protection from mosquito bites.

In numerous instances, the author practices the exact kind of misrepresentations or mischaracterizations that she accuses environmental activists of employing. In one case she recklessly attempts to define the precautionary principle. “This principle,” Logomasini explains, “basically suggests that society should avoid any technologies – particularly chemicals – until they are proven safe.” The precautionary principle, which has been a cornerstone since at least the 1980’s of the worldwide environmental movement, says nothing about proving safety but rather specifically refers to areas of uncertainty: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation” (United Nations, Rio Declaration, 1992.)

In relating the Principle to human health and pesticides, the American Medical Association, a rather conservative association not typically associated with environmental interest groups, writes, “Particular uncertainty exists regarding the long-term health effects of low dose pesticide exposure…Considering [the] data gaps, it is prudent … to limit pesticide exposures … and to use the least toxic chemical pesticide or non chemical alternative.” (AMA, Council on Scientific Affairs. 1997.)

Other examples of the author’s mischaracterizations include: Lambasting unknown activists for citing non-peer reviewed studies, too few studies, or studies whose conclusions are not replicated, while she cites opinion editorials from newspaper articles and repeatedly uses one article from 1981 that questions the use of lab animals in estimating cancer risks to support several distinct arguments. The author also uses a quote that may be considered extreme but that does not come from an environmental activist in the U.S., and makes unsubstantiated claims about the human body’s seemingly endless ability to repair cell damage from low-level exposure. At one point, the author goes so far as to incorrectly cite CDC numbers of WNV cases and deaths and actually appears to round off the number of deaths (using 300 instead of the CDC figures of 284) in order to support her point that WNv is a serious illness.

Perhaps the strongest part of the author’s critique rests in her discussion of the overall decline in total cancer rates in the U.S. in recent decades citing evidence from the National Cancer Institute and the Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer. Although she is unable to cite any one activist claim to the contrary, still the suggestion that total cancer rates are declining despite the use of toxic chemicals on the surface seems convincing.

Yet, most environmental health advocates would agree that the bottom line of high breast cancer rates and childhood cancers are unwanted at any level in our society. As more scientific research continues to shed light on the vulnerabilities of children during their different developmental stages, pesticide exposure, endocrine disruptors, and the potential linkages therein (see work by Wargo, J.; Porter, W.; Lowensgart, P.; Buckley, J., et al, Gold, et al., Davis, J. et al for example), the more likely it is that people will seek logical explanations despite the difficulty in proving perfect cause and effect relationships as well as seek to reduce potentially harmful exposures at all possible points.

Increasing incidents of breast cancer in women and numerous cancers in children cannot fully be discounted due to better diagnostic and reporting improvements, though few would suggest such progress should be ignored. The author takes the increases so lightly however, that she again mischaracterizes the comments of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) by saying that they note that “breast cancer rates only appear to be higher because of better screening and increased detection.” [Emphasis added.] What the NCI actually says is, “Incidence rates in women increased slightly, largely because of increases that occurred in some older age groups, possibly as a result of increased early detection.” In other words, the NCI never suggests that the increase is only an illusion due to detection.

By citing a CDC report that collected reported cases of WNv-related pesticide poisonings, the author also attempts to downplay the severity and injustice of pesticide poisonings and the failure of many municipalities to consider both the threats of WNv with exposure to pesticides. She reasons, “If spraying-related health problems are as rampant as environmental activists suggest, we should expect some significant documentation of cases.” Yet, she fails to highlight some key facts about the CDC’s collection of statistics. There were 133 cases of illness and 132 work place-related reports, which equals 265 acute poisonings, not 133. Only nine states had collected data and two of the nine states, Oregon and Washington, had no cases of WNV. 35 of the cases were gathered from news reports – not by state or physician reports, which illustrate a poor reporting system.

According to GAO testimony in 2001, “In 1999, the EPA estimated that, nationwide, there were 10,000 to 20,000 incidents of physician-diagnosed pesticide illnesses and injuries per year in farm work alone. [Emphasis added.] EPA recognized…significant underreporting and that no comprehensive national data are available on the extent of pesticide illnesses.”

Although the author does eventually concede that, “CDC data doesn’t include potential cancers – which in theory would occur decades from now,” she never actually takes on the issue of efficacy of the sprays so that the reader may make a balanced judgment between exposure to WNv and exposure to pesticides.

In the author’s zeal to discredit the claims that pesticides are hazardous to human health and the environment, she overstates the intentions of environmental activists, mischaracterizes and misrepresents numerous statements and figures, misinterprets several quotes and conclusions, leaves out material information (including citing studies but failing to quote parts of the study that do not support her conclusions), and overall does a very poor analysis of environmentalist’s claims about pesticides and West Nile virus.

The paper’s only success is that it reminds all writers and researchers, whether they are environmental activists or critics of activists, to be diligent in substantiating or quantifying conclusions and careful not to fall victim to their own criticisms by accusing others for things they themselves are guilty.

On its website, the Competitive Enterprise Institute describes itself as a “non-profit, non-partisan research and advocacy institute dedicated to the principles of free enterprise and limited government” that advocates for the use of “sound science.” However, according to PR Watch, a media watchdog that tracks organizations and their funding sources, CEI is described as “an ideologically-driven, well-funded front for corporations opposed to safety and environmental regulations that affect the way they do business.”

The paper can be downloaded directly at www.cei.org.

TAKE ACTION: Keep abreast of those who oppose the work of environmental, anti-pesticide, and environmental health advocates and always analyze your own statements through their eyes. Gain insights on the strategy of industry critiques in “The Pesticide Industry Enters the Classroom,” by John Borowski. Be prepared for more articles against environmental advocates and in support of DDT as the mosquito season commences. Recent articles include: “What the World Needs Now Is DDT” (New York Times, 4/11/04) and “Why the Sympathy for Mosquitoes” (Chicago Tribune Online, 4/23/04). For guidance on writing a letter to your local paper regarding spraying for West Nile virus see Beyond Pesticides’ Letters to the Editor.