Toxic Arguments

Toxic Arguments

Book Review in Business & Media Institute
September 24, 2008

A Review of “Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on Our Children” by Philip and Alice Shabecoff

By Iain Murray

There’s
a cartoon that ran in the New Yorker a couple of years ago. Two cavemen
are sitting cross-legged, looking puzzled. One of them is saying,
“Something’s just not right – our air is clean, our water is pure, we
all get plenty of exercise, everything we eat is organic and
free-range, and yet nobody lives past thirty.”

It is
possible that one of those cavemen represents the ancestor of Phillip
Shabecoff, the former New York Times environment correspondent and
co-author with his wife Alice of “Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault
on Our Children,” which advances a positively Neanderthal view of the
role of chemicals in modern life. To read the Shabecoffs’ book, you’d
think we would be the ones dropping dead at thirty – or thirteen, such
is the Shabecoff’s concentration on the dangers we are supposedly
exposing our children to.

In this view of the world,
everything we do, literally from dawn to dusk, exposes our children to
another deadly risk. The vinyl in the shower curtain, the Teflon on the
frying pan, the phthalates in the food storage containers in the
fridge, the bisphenol in the water bottle and the PVC
on your child’s t-shirt design could all give your child cancer, and
that’s just before your child goes off to school. Chapter five, “Scene
of the Crime,” lists literally hundreds of ways in which daily life
supposedly exposes our children to danger.

Of course, we’re
all living past thirty, way past thirty. Life expectancy in the United
States has been increasing for over a hundred years, and continues to
increase. In 2004, it reached 77.8 years, up from under 50 in 1900 (and
under 70 in 1950). Meanwhile, cancer mortality rates have decreased
significantly. For children, according to the National Cancer
Institute. There has been a very slight increase in cancer rates over
the past thirty years, but survival rates have increased sharply, from
under 50 percent in 1970 to over 80 percent today.

The fact
is that modern life is much, much safer than it was in previous
centuries (never mind the Stone Age), and chemicals actually have a lot
to do with that. Chlorination of water, for instance, has reduced death
from waterborne diseases in the US from up to 100 deaths annually per
100,000 people to negligible numbers today. The supposedly evil
phthalates that enable PVCMRSA and other
diseases that lurk in hospitals. Chemicals enable high-yield farming
and produced the “green revolution,” which has stopped literally
millions of people dying of hunger around the world. products to be
flexible have provided doctors with durable, sterile containers that
can withstand heat and pressure and tubing that doesn’t kink. These
advances have saved many thousands of life by enabling better handling
of blood and intravenous medicines. Biocidal chemicals give us the
prospect of wiping out

What
would our life be like without these chemicals? Nasty, brutish and
short, as Hobbes put it. The Shabecoffs, to their credit, do admit
this, but try to weasel out of the bind this admission puts them in by
advocating “green chemistry,” the development of safe chemical
substitutes. To the extent that this is happening spontaneously
(industry after all advances by finding better ways of doing things),
this is unobjectionable, but the point of the Shabecoffs’ book seems to
be to scare people into organizing to demand this in the political
sphere, forcing companies to act. Yet if the green chemicals aren’t
there yet, or are too expensive in comparison with existing chemicals,
then vast numbers of people could be denied the benefits we have
accrued over the past century.

We know what could happen.
The Shabecoffs, by their own admission, are trying to do what Rachel
Carson did in the 1960s. She raised a scare over the chemical pesticide
DDT that motivated concerned people such that
a national ban was put in place and a de facto international ban
erected. Yet the “safer” replacements for DDT
proved more expensive and less effective. As I detail in my book, The
Really Inconvenient Truths, less effective chemicals proved unable to
save the American Elm from Dutch Elm Disease, resulting in a loss of 60
percent of the trees across the nation, while more expensive chemicals
meant that the countries of Africa were unable to afford to protect
their citizens adequately from malaria, resulting in millions of
avoidable deaths. Such are the risks of raising scares and organizing
vocal, rich pressure groups based on them.

We live in a
world where risk surrounds us every day. The Shabecoffs appreciate
that. However, they fail to appreciate that chemicals protect us from
much greater risks. That’s a tradeoff I’ll take for my family any day.
I do not want to go back to the Stone Age.

Iain Murray is Senior Fellow in Energy, Science and Technology at the
Competitive Enterprise Institute and author of The Really Inconvenient
Truths: Seven Environmental Catastrophes Liberals Won’t Tell You About
– Because They Helped Cause Them, from Regnery Publishing.