"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

My Parents Poisoned Me, and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt 

Via the Left Coaster, I discovered this interesting tidbit from the Organic Consumers Association:
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), led by Bush appointees, is seeking input on a new proposed study in which infants in participating low income families will be monitored for health impacts as they undergo exposure to known toxic chemicals over the course of two years. The study entitled Children’s Environmental Exposure Research Study (CHEERS) will look at how chemicals can be ingested, inhaled or absorbed by children ranging from babies to 3 years old.

For taking part in these studies, each family will receive $970, a free video camera, a T-shirt, and a framed certificate of appreciation.

Two points: First, having recently embarrassed myself by falling for a good-natured hoax, my first thought was "there you go again!" This story seemed so outrageous that I was sure it could not be real. However, upon visiting the EPA Web site, I learned that the story is, in fact, true.

Also, under other circumstances I might be persuaded that the EPA study is actually good science. After all, modern living involves exposure to a wide range of potentially toxic chemical agents - common household ammonia is extremely toxic, to take one obvious example - and it makes sense that we would want to learn more about the effects of these chemicals and the mechanisms by which they are ingested.

However, there are details in this story which I find troubling. First, note that the subject group is skewed very much in favor of low-income individuals. While there is no explicit means test for participation, all subjects will be taken from a single Florida clinic where the majority of the clients are racial minorities and the overwhelming majority have a high school education or less. Sounds like poor folks to me. Also, while the study does not mandate increased chemical usage by the subject population, the study does encourage such use by creating an economic incentive to fit within the subject group.

Furthermore, one might wonder what, exactly, there is to study. The effects of the specific chemicals under examination - primarily pesticides, including organophosphates - are, I think, reasonably well understood. Also well understood is the fact that the known effects of these chemicals manifest themselves over the long term, not the relatively short two-year period of this study. Now, as it happens, I am more sanguine than many of my liberal brethren about the cost/benefit ratio in pesticide use; I suspect that far more health problems are avoided through the proper use of pesticides than are caused by such use. Still, improper use of pesticides has the potential to do serious harm - and I wonder how much is being done by the EPA to address this problem.

Finally, and most disconcerting, I note that the funds underwriting this study come entirely from the chemical industry itself. Note the title of the EPA's own press release, dated October 12, 2004: EPA Partners With American Chemistry Council to Study Young Children's Exposures to Household Chemicals. Assuming that the powers that be within the ACC have their shareholders' interests at heart, one need not be too cynical to wonder what these titans of industry hope to get for their money.

One final matter: I must, in the interest of truth, point out that the Organic Consumers Association did get some of their facts wrong. Specifically, the claim that study participants "will receive $970, a free video camera, a T-shirt, and a framed certificate of appreciation" is erroneous on at least two counts. First, only a portion of the participants will receive the full $970; many will receive less. Second, the EPA is not giving away video cameras; the cameras (provided to videotape the children's behavior) have to be returned at the end of the study.

The part about the T-shirt, however, appears to be accurate.




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