Philip and Alice Shabecoff's Poisoned Profits.

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 12 2008 7:05 AM

What's Wrong With Environmental Alarmism

How to mobilize, but not paralyze, the public with fear.

Poisoned Profits.

Remember Alar? If you were in the vicinity of a television in the spring of 1989, it's likely you do. Alar was a potentially cancer-causing chemical sprayed on apples, brought to public attention by a high-profile report on 60 Minutes. I was in high school then, and I vividly recall the pictures of bright-red apples, suddenly sinister, on the evening news and the swift disappearance of the fruit from crisper drawers and lunchroom trays, whisked away as if by a magic spell.

In fact, the fate of Alar-tainted apples was decided by a savvy piece of public relations. The Natural Resources Defense Council offered the producers of 60 Minutes an exclusive look at its report on potentially carcinogenic pesticides in exchange for the promise of a feature story. From the NRDC's list of 23 chemicals, the news program chose to focus on Alar for the simple reason that it made a good story. Apples, kids, cancer: Predictably, mothers were soon pouring bottles of apple juice down the drain, and growers were promising to stop using Alar on their crops. 60 Minutes and the NRDC had effectively used public panic to fill what they viewed as gaps in government regulation.

In a time of waning will and dwindling resources for such regulation, the emotional reactions of consumers are increasingly deployed to remove dangers, real or perceived, from the environment. This year's signature scare has featured bisphenol A, a chemical commonly used in plastics. When media reports linked BPA to an elevated risk of cancer and to alterations in behavior and brain function in animals, a collective howl went up from parents all over the country. As a story, BPA went Alar one better: Here were potentially toxic chemicals in baby bottles. Even as officials from the Food and Drug Administration assured consumers that BPA posed little risk, Wal-Mart declared that it was phasing out baby products containing the substance, and the manufacturer Nalgene announced that it would remove BPA from its popular sport bottles.

But the most compelling story isn't necessarily the most accurate or important one. In the case of Alar, subsequent research indicated that the chemical may not have been so dangerous after all. And what happened to the other 22 chemicals on the NRDC's list? Who knows? As for BPA, the baby-bottle panic of 2008 may also have been overblown. Public outrage can force swift change, but it's a blunt instrument, poorly suited to evaluating the many potential risks we face. It relies not on sober analysis but on visceral alarm, especially about the most vulnerable in our midst, children.

How to move the public to necessary action while at the same time conveying the often-numbing complexities of environmental hazards? That's the dilemma confronting Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on Our Children, a new book that argues that thousands of environmental chemicals are wreaking havoc on the health of American children. Its authors are Philip Shabecoff, who was for 14years the chief environmental correspondent for the New York Times, and his wife, Alice Shabecoff, who is a freelance journalist and former executive director of the National Consumers League.

The Shabecoffs would seem to have the complexity part covered. In 368 exhaustive, and exhausting, pages, they document  "the toxic assault on our children," who are exposed daily to pesticides, car exhaust, waste-site runoff, and industrial-plant emissions, as well as to chemicals found in consumer goods like cleaning products, cosmetics, and clothing. Such exposures, they claim, have led to a steep increase in the incidence of serious childhood illnesses like asthma, autism, and cancer. "What is happening to our children as a result of toxic substances in the environment is criminal," they declare. The Shabecoffs structure their account like a legal case, issuing indictments, marshalling evidence, and naming victims, perpetrators, and co-conspirators. The result, however, is less John Grisham and more of a court reporter's transcript: fact upon fact, piled so punishingly high that readers may feel they should be paid by the hour.

The sheer accumulation of detail is enough to overwhelm but not quite enough to persuade. Some crucial connective tissue is missing: the links that would prove, or at least strongly indicate, a cause-and-effect relationship between particular chemicals and specific illnesses. We read, for example, about a toddler named Jobori Montgomery who has asthma and about a teenager named Justin O'Neill who died of a rare brain cancer. Both lived near the oil refineries and petrochemical plants of Port Arthur, Texas—a relationship that is suggestive but hardly definitive.

Causation in such cases is notoriously difficult to demonstrate, and the Shabecoffs don't really try; instead, they bridge the gap with fist-shaking rants against the evils of the chemical industry and vague, grandiose calls to "rethink our economic priorities" and "reinvent the American community." Their rhetoric leaves the reader with the paralyzing sense that danger lurks in every corner, without providing even the fleeting relief of pitching some newly identified threat in the trash.

In a bow to what Poisoned Profits clearly wishes to be, its last few lines quote from Rachel Carson's 1962 classic, Silent Spring. Carson's book, of course, is the ultimate example of storytelling as agent of change: Her eloquent parable of despoiled nature has been credited with launching the modern environmental movement, and it helped lead to the 1972 government ban on the pesticide DDT. The Shabecoffs' invocation of Carson prompts a question very pertinent to their own endeavor: How did she pull off that feat, and is it possible—or even desirable—to replicate her achievement, almost half a century later?

Carson's considerable ability as a stylist and her status as a secular saint (she died of cancer just two years after Silent Spring's publication) tend to obscure what made her book such a devastatingly effective vehicle for her then-unfamiliar views. Carson had a fine eye for observation and a fierce passion for the natural world, but she also had a talent for managing information for maximum impact. Silent Spring offers not just lovely language and appalling anecdotes (though it has plenty of both); it also provides us with a conceptual framework and a set of priorities, a way to think about the issues it raises.

Carson carefully filtered out inessential detail, writing in a compressed style that has the spare authority of Scripture or a great play. "Chemicals sprayed on croplands or forests or gardens lie long in soil, entering into living organisms, passing from one to another in a chain of poisoning and death," she wrote. "Or they pass mysteriously by underground streams until they emerge and, through the alchemy of air and sunlight, combine into new forms that kill vegetation, sicken cattle, and work unknown harm on those who drink from once pure wells."

She embedded sharp details in a sweeping structure that had the inevitable, irresistible force of allegory. The book opens with a vision of an American town seized by a toxic blight: "There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example—where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices."

And she gently but insistently implicated all of us in the damage that was being wrought. Describing a ground squirrel grotesquely contorted in death from the spraying of a poisonous insecticide, she asked: "By acquiescing in an act that can cause such suffering to a living creature, who among is us is not diminished as a human being?" At the book's end, the reader feels not resigned but invigorated, filled with a bracing desire to put things right.

It's true that Carson had the advantages as well as the burdens of a pioneer: Her book was borne along by the adolescent energy and the moral clarity of a new movement. Following in the tracks of Silent Spring, the Shabecoffs traverse less virgin intellectual territory. Compared with poisons like DDT and aldrin, another banned pesticide, current environmental threats are subtler in their effects and less susceptible to confident conclusions about cause and effect. An entire industry of influence and spin has arisen, far more sophisticated than in Carson's day. (Her critics in the chemical industry reached for the stereotype closest to hand, calling her shrill and hysterical—charges that withered on contact with her stern prose.) Scientists, with their cautious statements and careful parsings, are often little help to the activist, as the Shabecoffs note with dismayed surprise. And the public, though more aware of environmental issues, has grown jaded in the face of constant alarms.

Still, the Shabecoffs' task is essentially the same as Carson's was: to make sense of the world and what we've done to it, to give us the lay of the land and a clear path forward. To do so in a way that compels both thought and action, without oversimplifying or sensationalizing, was Carson's great gift—a gift that looks rarer and more necessary with each passing season.

Annie Murphy Paul is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter.