Technology: Politically Correct Scapegoat?

August 10, 1998 • Commentary

Modern technology is now routinely scapegoated as a cause of human diseases and environmental problems. Certainly, the human tendency to blame bad news on new and unfamiliar things — in this case, modern technology — is understandable. In many cases, though, pointing the finger at technology is just plain wrong.

Cancer is frightening. Cancer in children is more terrifying still. For nearly two decades, some scientists have suggested that electromagnetic fields (EMF) around electric power lines cause brain tumors in children. The writer Paul Brodeur publicized those suggestions in the New Yorker. In 1996 the National Research Council, at the request of Congress, analyzed the scientific literature. It found “no conclusive evidence” that EMF had caused human disease. If there is an EMF‐​disease connection, it is too small to detect.

Everyone has been told that industrial chemicals are polluting the environment and causing a cancer epidemic. It’s not so. According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer rates have decreased since 1990, and the decline is getting steeper. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 1976 that environmental chemicals might cause 2 percent of all cancers. It’s likely they actually cause fewer. Maybe zero.

Connective tissue diseases occur in some women who have silicone breast implants and in some women who don’t. Some women with implants who developed those diseases have sued implant manufacturers, hired lawyers and scientists who produced exotic theories about how implants might cause disease, and won millions of dollars in damages. As reported in the January issue of the British Medical Journal, studies of thousands of women have failed to find convincing evidence that connective tissue diseases are more common in women with implants.

In 1996 researchers at Tulane University reported that exposure to mixtures of two pesticides at levels currently allowed by the EPA was 1,600 times as risky as exposure to either pesticide. The study was widely reported, along with warnings that everyone was exposed to mixtures of pesticides that increased risks of breast cancer, behavioral disorders and decreased sperm counts. It was all wrong. Less than a year later, the Tulane scientists reported that no one could repeat their experiment and retracted their earlier study.

Experts assembled by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences disagree about whether recent reports of deformed amphibians — frogs, toads and salamanders — represent an increase in deformed animals or just an increase in the number of people searching for them. If there is an increase in deformities, what could be the cause?

Explanations that blame modern technology satisfy many people because they point to industry as the cause, and industry is a politically acceptable culprit.

In December the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a paper that blamed ultraviolet (UV) light. The authors reminded readers that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), now‐​banned industrial chemicals that persist in the atmosphere, thin the ozone layer that shields the earth from the sun’s UV radiation. Their conclusion was simple: CFCs destroy ozone, which increases the radiation that increases the earth, which causes deformities. The paper gets high marks for political correctness and low marks as science.

The scientists studied salamanders known to lack an enzyme that repairs sunshine‐​caused damage to DNA. The salamanders are nocturnal creatures that spend their lives in shadow and darkness. Female salamanders anchor their eggs, which also lack the enzyme, underwater in ponds, safely out of sunlight.

The scientists collected eggs and floated them on the pond’s surface. Eighty‐​five percent of the eggs were killed outright, and 25 of 29 salamanders that hatched from the sun‐​exposed eggs were deformed. All this experiment shows is that the normal level of sunshine is devastating to salamanders.

Newspapers and TV reported the CFC‐​slanted story. They have not reported that far better evidence indicates that naturally occurring parasites cause the deformities.

Everyone wants explanations for disease and environment problems. Explanations that blame modern technology satisfy many people because they point to industry as the cause, and industry is a politically acceptable culprit.

Politically correct science costs us all. Consumers have paid billions of dollars to clean up chemicals and bury power lines to block EMF. Women who need breast reconstruction have to jump through all kinds of Food and Drug Administration hurdles to get silicone breast implants. The Tulane study on pesticides was wrong, but it was partly responsible for Congress’s writing a new pesticide law that will drive many “old” pesticides off the market. As they disappear, food prices will increase and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables will decrease, as will the protection against cancer that comes from eating those foods. The “UV causes deformities” story will become a staple among the politically correct tales about how modern technology is destroying the environment.

There are examples of technology’s affecting the environment, and they need to be addressed. That requires solid science — not politically correct science that points fingers at convenient targets.