Environmental, Chemistry & Hazardous Materials News, Careers & Resources

Editor's Blog

Pseudoscience: A Threat to Our Environment

By Kenneth Barbalace
[Friday, February 24, 2006]
US Government scientists have always been free to conduct unbiased research for the betterment of society and the environment. Under pressure from industry and special interests, biased research has resulted in pseudoscience that threatens the integrity of science in America. Pseudoscience: A Threat to Our Environment


NOTICE: Comments are user generated feedback and do not represent the views and/or opinions of EnvironmentalChemistry.com.

Lazer Beam said...

Pseudoscience also manifests in errors of regulatory omission. The USEPA has failed to add one substance to the Clean Water Act Section 307(a) list of toxic pollutants since the passage of Clean Water Act of 1977. So, for example, the list omits chlorinated dioxins and furans other than 2,3,7,8-TCDD, as well as the brominated and fluorinated analogs of the chlorinated alkanes, alkenes, benzenes, phenols, and biphenyls on the list, despite the fact that one can infer their hazards using quantitative structure activity relationships.

Further, USEPA has failed to promulgate new analytical methods, or preconcentration sampling for water and wastewater that would lower the method detection limit for the toxicant of interest below its most protective Water Quality Criterion. This has allowed industries to discharge hundreds of thousands of pounds per year of toxicants on the Section 307(a) list in high-flow effluents below the MDL and out of the reach of the regulators.

While we're on the subject of WQC, the combination of outdated fish consumption rates and bioconcentration factors that ignored food-chain bioaccumulation and biomagnification, has resulted in systematic underprotection of human health. Nor has USEPA published WQC to protect wildlife, under the theory that humans are always more sensitive, even though fish-eating wildlife are almost always more highly exposed.

As an example of pseudoscience from the chemical industry, consider Dow Chemical Company's 1978 trace chemistries of fire hypothesis (Bumb et al., 1980). This smoke screen was implemented to great effect nationally to preclude pursuit of zero discharge of synthetic organic compounds and locally to delay the clean up of polychlorinated dioxins and furans from the Tittabawassee River downstream of Dow's headquarters in Midland, MI. A 500-year flood in the mid-1980s subsequently deposited contaminated sediment that could and should have been removed in the mid-1970s onto the floodplain, contaminating school yards, parks, and residences. It also moved the contaminated sediment further downstream into the Saginaw River and into Saginaw Bay, where sport and commercial fish contamination persists to this day. How many otherwise preventable birth defects, cancers, and cognitive deficiencies occurred as a result without consequence to the perpetrator, because of these delaying tactics?

When the owners of the contaminated residences filed a class action suit more than five years ago, Dow responded legalistically that the residents didn’t constitute a class and fought their right to sue as a class all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court. On the pseudoscientific front, Dow opined that the toxicity of 2,3,7,8-TCDD had been overblown by the State of Michigan and USEPA. When the staff of the Michigan DEQ failed to raise its dioxin soil cleanup level by an order of magnitude to reduce Dow’s financial liabilities, Dow tried to negotiate a sweetheart deal with then outgoing Governor John Engler. Engler shared Dow's enthusiasm for underegulation, but the order required the signature of the Michigan Attorney General, Jennifer Granholm. She refused.

Expanded monitoring followed, revealing hot spots in the river that made the levels at Times Beach, MO, seem like a walk in the park. When USEPA Region 5 accused Dow of negotiating the Superfund monitoring and cleanup in bad faith, the Region 5 Regional Administrator, Mary Gade, was forced to resign with Bush's blessing. There wasn't an ounce of science on Dow's side, but that didn’t matter. This was classic political bullying by a company that has had its way since the advent of the modern environmental era. Nevertheless, under great duress, Dow has begun the cleanup of the dioxin hot spots downstream of the facility that manufactured hundreds of millions of pounds of Agent Orange in the early 1960s. But Dow is still fighting the broader cleanup of the mess it made with pseudoscience.

EnviroChem Logo