September 5, 2003
by Alex A. Avery
On HBO’s sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm, the lead female character is a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental activist group. It is appropriate that this show is a comedy, because NRDC has long been a bad national joke. How are we to take seriously the claims of an organization that for the last decade has used baseless fear and science fiction to get the public’s attention? Its tactics are reminiscent of the little boy who cried wolf, except the apocryphal shepherd boy got only three chances. NRDC, despite dozens of efforts to needlessly scare the American public, has yet to receive the deaf ear it deserves.
In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency is bending itself into a pretzel to accommodate this gang of activist lawyers. Recently, under a consent decree with NRDC, the agency held a special four-day Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) to review the supposed impacts of atrazine on the sexual development of frogs. Atrazine is an important agricultural herbicide, widely used for decades.
While one day of the four-day SAP was set aside for public comment, the NRDC was inexplicably given a separate day of its own to bloviate. Moreover, the NRDC’s pet scientist used up nearly six hours of the public’s comment day. (His research is, unsurprisingly, the only research implicating atrazine in frog abnormalities.)
Ten years ago, NRDC perpetrated one of the biggest scams ever on the American public, claiming that a product called alar, used in growing apples, was the “most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply.” NRDC ranted that alar was a “cancer-causing agent used on food that the EPA knows is going to cause cancer for thousands of children.” But it wasn’t true, and NRDC knew it. Alar, it turns out, was far less a cancer risk than tap water or peanut butter.
Why did they do it? According to boasts from NRDC’s public relations firm, it was all an elaborate (and highly successful) fundraising scheme. When their lies were exposed—sadly too late to save mass parental anguish over supposedly poisonous apple juice or to save apple farmers the millions of dollars in market losses—the NRDC equivocated. “We never said there was an immediate danger,” they said as they laid blame on journalists who “muddled” their report and the public who “overreacted.”
Like alar, the agricultural herbicide atrazine is a high-level target of the NRDC. These wactivists claim atrazine is a known carcinogen—when they know it is not.
In 1994, the EPA initiated a special review of atrazine, among other herbicides. Since that time Syngenta, the primary manufacturer of atrazine, has provided the EPA with more than 200 studies that demonstrate that atrazine is safe for humans and the environment. In June 2000, the EPA’s atrazine SAP met and concluded that atrazine does not pose a cancer risk to humans.
But the constant intervention of NRDC into the regulatory process has carried on the review of atrazine for nearly a decade. Last year, one college researcher claimed that atrazine at low doses (but not at high doses) was affecting the sexual development of frogs. He became an instant media darling. Yet three separate groups of university research scientists have been unable to replicate his results. Replication is the foundation of sound science. Nevertheless, based on that one scientist’s unreplicated research, the NRDC demanded and got the EPA to convene yet another SAP to examine the impact of atrazine on amphibians.
In advance of the meeting, the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs posted its opinion that “The current weight-of-evidence does not show that atrazine produces consistent, reproducible effects across the range of exposure concentrations and amphibian species tested.” However, after the SAP, the EPA reported, “atrazine exposure did appear to be having some impact on gonadal effects” of frogs. Nothing changed about the evidence from the previous week. It was still inconsistent, unreplicated, and illogical.
Why is the environmental protest industry allowed to manipulate the process this way? Where is the taxpayer outrage? The NRDC is not a grassroots organization funded by concerned citizens throwing in their twenty dollars apiece to save the environment. They are a well-funded army of lawyers ($4 million in taxpayer funds from the EPA alone) that uses the American legal system as a means to an end. The first lawsuit filed by NRDC against atrazine was in 1986. When the NRDC can’t win in court, they take their case to the media, where they are not required to swear to tell the whole truth. The alar smear campaign exposed their underhanded tactics.
Hundreds upon hundreds of studies conducted by responsible scientists confirm that atrazine is safe for humans, safe for the environment, and valuable to farmers. On matters of the environment and human safety, isn’t the word of sound science considerably more valid than that of lawyers?
Alex Avery is director of research and education for the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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