No major media picked up the story, even though it demolished every health and environmental claim devised by scaremongers
By Terence Corcoran
Welcome to the 10th Annual FP Comment Junk Science Week event, which begins today with a somewhat tedious and dry look at a classic, the pesticide scare. For more than a decade, the likes of Greenpeace, the Ontario College of Family Physicians, The Globe and Mail and scores of activists and city politicians have waged a relentless campaign against pesticide use.
It’s easy to generate a junk science scare. You make stuff up, exaggerate the risks, politicize the subject and spin it into a corporate and ideological battle. And, above all, you ignore the facts. Which is what happened last month when Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) released its final reassessment of the leading pesticide, 2,4-D, and found the chemical to be safe when used properly.
No major media — not one — picked up the story, even though it systematically demolished every health and environmental claim the scaremongers had dumped onto a gullible community of journalists. Almost two weeks later, the Ottawa Citizen’s Dan Gardner wrote a column on how the media missed the story. Still no reaction.
The limited fallout from Mr. Gardner’s report is instructive. A Global News reporter picked it up and raised the Health Canada report with officials in Toronto. Health Canada’s conclusions were dismissed by a city council member, and the views of an activist with the Toronto Environmental Alliance were repeated: “Many studies have linked 2,4-D to some serious health concerns such as cancer, reproductive developments in our children … and even birth defects.”
So much for Health Canada’s work: One of the most comprehensive scientific reviews in Canadian history, carried out exclusively by Health Canada scientists and reviewed by independent government and university researchers trashed in 30 seconds by an activist repeating claims rejected by the review. All that work and the last media report ends with repetition of the junk science Health Canada had spent millions disproving.
The Global report was then followed by an op-ed in the Citizen by Neil Arya, of the Ontario College of Family Physicians, one of the leading proponents of the pesticide scare. Responding to Mr. Gardner, Dr. Arya trotted out the same old arguments his group has been using for years. He began with the usual catch-all scaremonger cop-out, accusing Health Canada of saying that a hazardous substance was safe. “Science cannot say 2,4-D, or any other toxic chemical designed to kill a biological organism, is safe.”
Health Canada actually said 2,4-D was safe when used as directed — a logical statement that accompanies most human activity. We don’t drive cars off cliffs because it’s not safe. Any automobile is not safe when driven unsafely. Dr. Arya is playing with the reader’s mind and warping Health Canada’s thorough review of the issue.
Another favourite of junk science activists is the corporate smear. Official science is “industry” science, and therefore not to be trusted. Dr. Arya does that twice. He said Health Canada decisions are “predicated on industry-supplied, highly controlled” studies. Not true, but he went on to say the media should not be “unduly influenced by the corporate agenda.”
Health Canada actually addresses directly the myths of the corporate science issue. First it notes that it evaluates the science as science, not on the basis of who supplied it. Second, it adds that industry-supplied science can often be superior, if only because industry studies are often accompanied by full “raw data,” something that doesn’t always come with other published studies.
It’s easy to lay the charges and mount a campaign, to convey fear and uncertainty, compared with the dry business of actually conducting a science review. The excerpts from the Health Canada 2,4-D review elsewhere on this page are no fun. It’s easy to scare people with the fact that 2,4-D is a chemical descendant of Agent Orange, but not all that interesting to learn that Agent Orange is actually a different chemical. It’s easy to mention Sweden and Denmark, countries that have banned 2,4-D, but tedious to read of the reality behind the ban and the fact that Europe as a whole and other jurisdictions continue to approve its use.
The anti-pesticide activists (whatever their motivation) also have an easy fall-back to the incontrovertible fact that there is no scientific certainty, and to argue that, as a result, we should invoke the precautionary principle. Our Junk Science Week reports will include a critical look at the precautionary principle.
The activists, however, have an even more treacherous science concept up their sleeves. When Ontario’s Environment Minister, John Gerretsen, was asked last week about Health Canada’s finding on the safety of 2,4-D, he raised another issue. Health Canada, he said, was looking at pesticides on a “product-by-product” basis. That’s not good enough. Instead, Ontario wants Ottawa to conduct research into the “cumulative effects” of many chemicals. One chemical may be safe, but so what? What about the combined impact of all chemicals in the environment.
It’s a growing activist theme — the chemical soup concept — that looms as the next big science scare. Even if one chemical is safe, it could be a risk when combined with others. The prospects for expanding popular concerns and regulatory paralysis are limitless.
Terence Corcoran is editor of the Financial Post.