American Council on Science and Health, May 12, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Radical anti-environmentalist Elizabeth Whelan once again distorts and misrepresents the precautionary approach so that she can trash it. Her work is funded mainly by corporate polluters.]

By Elizabeth M. Whelan, Sc.D., M.P.H.

The nation's most outspoken environmentalists -- along with our public servants at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- have for decades represented themselves as the protectors of human life and health. But just recently they have removed their masks and revealed

The most obvious historical example of this life-threatening advocacy is the banning of DDT -- a chemical that curtailed the spread of malaria by killing the vectors of that disease, mosquitoes. Following the environmentalist-inspired banning of DDT in 1972, the death rate from malaria soared in countries around the world. People died because a life-saving chemical was removed.

A current case in point, however, is the war environmentalists are waging against flame-retardant chemicals known as PBDEs (polybrominated diethyl [sic] ether). [Actually the chemicals Ms. Whelan is trying to defend are polybrominated diphenyl ethers.-- Editors]

These chemicals are used widely in consumer electronics, furniture foam, wire insulation, backcoatings for draperies and upholstery, and more. They increase valuable escape time in cases of fire by slowing both ignition and the rate of fire growth. (Approximately 4,000 Americans die each year in fires, which occur primarily in homes. There are nearly 20,000 injuries from fire, with direct financial loses approaching $10 billion.)

Incredibly, as a result of pressure from environmentalists in recent years, most flame-retardant chemicals have been banned both in the United States and Europe, and those remaining are very much under assault. Why? Because activists -- and their surrogates at the Environmental Protection Agency -- argue that the chemicals can be found in blood and breast milk samples and may cause cancer in laboratory rodents.

The EPA has issued a statement saying that "although use of flame- retardants saves lives and property, there have been unintended consequences. There is growing evidence that PBDEs persist in the environment and accumulate in living organisms [and] toxicological testing indicates that these chemicals may cause liver toxicity, thyroid toxicity, and neuro-developmental toxicity." Freely translated, what the EPA is saying is that the Agency deems these chemicals to be dangerous because they cause adverse effects in rodents, and today's super-sensitive detection techniques can pick up traces during biomonitoring of human tissues. Note that they do not claim that flame-retardants cause human disease or death; they are only suggesting this might happen. They are relying on the precautionary principle: when in doubt, throw it out. After all, some feel, no price tag is too high to save a life, even a hypothetical life.

The problem is that while the EPA and its activist clones outside the agency try to save hypothetical lives by banning flame-retardants, real people are dying and suffering from burns. Ironically, the people being killed and maimed are most often those who are the most vulnerable among us: children and the elderly, who cannot quickly escape consuming flames.

As the EPA regulates against flame-retardants, Americans die and suffer. Banning the very few flame-retardants now left on the market will have the dire consequence of increasing the risk of fire injuries and death here and around the world.

Environmental groups like the Environmental Working Group and Greenpeace (and the EPA regulators they influence) are revealing their true agenda: ban industrial chemicals without regard for the loss of life and human suffering it will cause.

Until consumers, scientists, and policy makers make a commitment to confront these activists with facts -- and hold them responsible for the consequences of banning life-saving technology -- pseudoscience and the precautionary principle will continue to prevail in regulatory policy, and all of us will suffer.

Elizabeth M. Whelan, Sc.D., MPH, is founder and president of the American Council on Science and Health.