Health News Digest

August 1, 2011

Fighting Back Against The Chemophobes

Stop chemophobia

By  Michael D. Shaw

Last week, this column examined the railroading of one particular chemical—styrene—by a regulatory agency. The only good news from that story is that the affected industry decided to fight back, and filed suit against the agency in federal court. Some readers may not appreciate just how rare this is.

In fact, I was reminded by eminent toxicologist Robert Golden, Ph.D., that as strong a case as the styrene people can make for their “molecule” (as chemicals are called in Washington lobbyist-speak), the formaldehyde people have an even stronger argument, with the National Academy of Sciences on their side. Yet, their group is taking a far less aggressive approach.

Why, you might ask—especially in light of all we hear about big bad industry running roughshod over the poor regulators—do most industry groups not fight back? There are several reasons for this, starting with how public opinion is informed, or more likely these days…how it is misinformed.

Perhaps the earliest example of this in our modern media age dates back to January, 1968 and the Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War. All told, this huge effort against our side—the largest of the war up to that point—led to a crushing defeat for the enemy. To be sure, there were grumblings about how our intel had understated the capability of their forces, and public support for the war was rapidly declining.

Nonetheless, our stunning victory was painted in the media, led by Walter Cronkite, as a defeat. So egregious was his commentary that some in the Johnson White House suggested that top figures at CBS News be arrested for treason. This never happened of course, but LBJ, stung by the media literally snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, was convinced that losing Cronkite meant that he had also lost middle America—and he was right. To this day, many people still believe that we lost the Tet Offensive.

Some observers might suggest that the absurd campaign against DDT, which actually came earlier than Tet, and featured the now completely discredited writings of Rachel Carson, would be a better starting point. I chose Tet since most Americans were informed about the Vietnam War, getting endless news reports, while the world of toxic chemicals was quite esoteric back then.

In any case, public opinion can be misinformed, and this happens all the time. Striking back from the chemical industry position is most difficult. After all, there really were the bad old days of air and water pollution. Why should the public trust evil industry now? Moreover, since science will have to be invoked in some manner for industry’s defense, and the state of science education these days is deplorable, good luck in making a scientific point with the public.

This “science” bit is further complicated by the fact that industry trade groups often hire expensive science nerd consultants, who make brilliant arguments in their favor—that few will actually understand. Meanwhile, empowered by the pushover nature of their foes, fear entrepreneurial fund-raising “environmental” groups can live off the fat—and the ignorant—of the land.

Then there is the social networking aspect. One would think that the mission of a chemical industry trade group or NGO (non governmental organization) would be to further the interests of the particular molecule(s) represented. On paper and on their websites, this is indeed the case. However, the reality is often quite different.

Trade groups—especially the larger ones—are dominated, not by true industry types, but by so-called association professionals, whose real goal is to obtain an even more cushy trade association gig down the road. Thus, they are discouraged from making waves. And, to be fair, are sometimes also trammeled by corporate legal staffs wary of giving offense, lest they lose public favor, which they don’t have anyway.

Another factor is the predictable nature of media response on nearly all issues. How many times have you ever seen a media figure change their position, other than those obviously motivated by dollar signs, such as Arianna Huffington? Few pundits want to admit that they were wrong, and thus cling to templated versions of reality. Besides, it’s easier that way.

Finally, contemporary society places few penalties on loony pundits such Harvard biologist George Wald (warned in 1970 that “… civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind”); Paul Ehrlich (65 million Americans would die of starvation between 1980 and 1989); and Sen. Gaylord Nelson (by 1995 somewhere between 75 and 85 percent of all the species of living animals will be extinct). There are many more examples.

OK. So what strategic avenues are open to the chemical industry? There are basically two: Expose the fear entrepreneurial fund-raising groups as nothing more than cynical mercenary twits, and start fighting back against the regulatory agencies. Public opinion will take care of itself.