August 4, 1997 in Nation/World

Pop Mythology And Politics Poor Substitutes For Science

Pete Fretwell Special To Roundtable
 

I recently moved from being a journalist to being the guy who has to deal with journalists. What an awakening. I soon grasped why so many folks distrust reporters.

Taken individually, they’re nice people. But collectively, on complex stories, they often get as many facts wrong as right. And collectively, they can be lousy listeners. Once the herd instinct takes over, they can stampede down the factless path without pausing to listen to reason.

I stepped into the agriculture industry just as the Seattle Times went to press with a series of articles on wastes in fertilizer. The stories claimed industry was dumping toxic wastes by labeling them as fertilizer. The clearly stated fear was that people might be poisoned with heavy metals moving from the waste into the food supply.

As my new agriculture colleagues - who had decades of science in this area - walked around muttering to themselves about the (graphic expletives) media, I decided it was a good time to avoid discussions about my sordid past as a journalist and slip away to do some research. What I found is quite different from what has been reported and editorialized.

While it is possible that my sudden switch of professions irreversibly damaged my ability to think, reason and research, I doubt it. Most of the facts I discovered are so simple and imbued with common sense, it doesn’t take a rocket- or soil scientist to understand them.

For example, the media and environmentalists insist on calling it waste. Scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Ecology call it recycling. They encourage it as environmentally sound. Washington State University and other college researchers have monitored it, and they all agree that it’s a reasonable and safe way to reuse valuable material - useful plant nutrients such as zinc.

Recycling it reduces the need to mine more of it, and avoids dumping reusable material into landfills.

To cynics, the move from waste to recycling is just a word game. To the environmentally honest, it is an important distinction. The zinc will be used anyway, so should we recycle it or dig another mine and fill another landfill?

But what about the heavy metals that tag along with the recycled materials?

Fair question. My research revealed that Pacific Northwest soils are primarily volcanic, with a wide range of naturally occurring heavy metals. Some untreated soils have higher heavy metal concentrations than treated soil. Equally important, a comparison of treated and untreated soils in the Columbia Basin found no buildup of heavy metals from fertilizers.

Environmentalists reasonably argue that we shouldn’t needlessly add heavy metals to the soil. But - scientifically and factually - this situation doesn’t fit their somewhat simplistic bromide.

Is there a food safety issue here? My journalist friends keep muddling this question. But Dr. Allan Felsot, an environmental toxicologist at Washington State University, told me that federal Food and Drug Administration studies over the past two decades show a declining level of lead, arsenic and cadmium in people’s diets. Dr. Felsot, who is a Fulbright scholar and one of the world’s leading experts on some issues in this debate, notes that using recycled materials is a decades-old practice.

Simply put, if it were affecting our food supply, the FDA data shouldn’t show improving food safety.

Another awakening slowly occurred for me during this debate. An EPA administrator candidly admitted to me that policy from his agency is often dictated by public perception, rather than science. He cited Alar as an example of a product placed on the EPA’s banned list because of public and media pressure, not science.

I watched state regulators and scientists, who know they have sound scientific backing on this issue, sit silently as nonscientists spread fear based on nothing but emotion. At this point, I expect to see some regulation or legislation imposed on fertilizers without any science to back them up. Such - I am learning - is the nature of politics.

Ironically, regulation likely will hit organic farmers and organic consumers harder in the pocketbook than it will hit the average consumer. Organic growers have used this issue to push for extra market share for organic foods. But organic foods are often fertilized with animal feces - which, by the way, they don’t refer to as a waste product - laden with heavy metals. In many cases, the animal feces are much higher in heavy metals than chemical fertilizers.

Additionally, animal feces carry the potential for E. coli contamination. Any regulation to limit heavy metal content in chemical fertilizers will presumably affect animal feces fertilizers, too.

By the time I finished my research and returned to my newfound industry, nothing had changed. My peers still were muttering about the journalists. The journalists still were chasing sexy quotes from environmentalists. The environmentalists sitll were grumbling about the evil empire of industry and the dangers of using anything but animal feces to grow crops.

And the scientists still were going silently about their business, amazed at our ignorance.

Such is life in the real world.

xxxx


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