Risk And Environmental Information: Federal Data Mandates, Mandates to Misinform

Information is a valuable tool, but sometimes misinformation is more powerful. As we approach Earth Day 1999, CEI observes the state of environmental information available to the public, and we conclude that misinformation abounds as some groups manipulate the facts to promote their special agendas.

Nowhere is this case more clear than in environmentalists’ use of federal data collection laws. These laws mandate that companies provide information about their industrial processes, such as the residuals they produce. The EPA and a number of environmental groups publish this data on the Internet, and then they imply that these residuals pose serious public health risks. The goal is to promote misinformed political activism. Individuals can look up a company in their community on the Internet site, and it reports how much “pollution” the company “releases.” Then the site directs that person to write to lawmakers and companies to stop such “pollution.”

But there’s a problem with this “information.” It doesn’t inform. Consider some facts:

FACT: Many of these so-called releases are not even releases. They include safe forms of land disposal and residuals that firms recycle. Yet environmentalists and EPA label these residuals “pollution,” despite the soundness of the practices.

FACT: The simple fact that a synthetic chemical exists doesn’t mean it poses much of a risk. Scientists Bruce Ames and Lois S. Gold note, we consume thousands of chemicals in our diet, 99.9 percent of which are natural. Many of these chemicals, although natural, cause cancer to rodents when administered in high doses. Yet it’s safe to consume these chemicals. Ironically, if the government required that we tally these chemical “releases” into our body, they would dwarf the amount of synthetic chemicals that we find in most communities.

FACT: These laws can’t tell us much about actual risks because we simply don’t have enough information on the chemicals’ impacts. For example, according to a 1992 National Research Council study, we have discovered about 5 million different chemicals, yet we don’t have much information on them. The NRC says that we’ve linked 30 to cancer and have conducted tests on 7,000 more using rodents.

FACT: Even for the chemicals that the NRC labels cancerous, they are only cancerous at relatively high exposure levels. Low-level exposures that we experience from emissions and other sources don’t pose much of a threat. Scientists Richard Doll and Richard Peto’s landmark study on cancer risks found that “environmental pollution” could be responsible for only about 2 percent of cancer deaths. If environmental groups are truly concerned about public heath, they should educate the public on the more serious risks, such as smoking and consuming an unbalanced diet, which together likely cause well over half of all U.S. cancers.

Angela Logomasini, CEI’s director of risk and environmental policy, is available for interview by contacting Emily McGee, director of media relations, at 202-331-1010, ext. 209, or 703-728-0138 (cell).

CEI, a non-profit, non-partisan public policy group founded in 1984, is dedicated to the principles of free enterprise and limited government.