Separating fact from fiction on the environment


OPINION:Traditional media can still play a major role in highlighting risks to the Earth or human health, writes FRANK McDONALD.

IT IS quite remarkable how few early warnings about risks to human health or the environment over the years turned out to be unfounded. Whether the dangers came from X-rays, DDT, tobacco smoking, asbestos, lead in petrol or chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), early warners were proved right, often after decades of denial by vested interests.

Similar struggles are still being waged over electromagnetic radiation from powerlines, dioxins from waste incineration or desirability of producing food using genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

And, as in the past, scientists who stick their necks out on these issues have been disowned, harassed and even vilified.

Árpád Pusztai, a Hungarian protein scientist whose 1998 study of GM potatoes showed that they had negative effects on the immune system of rats, was dismissed by the Rowlett Research Institute in Aberdeen, his research team disbanded and its laboratory work destroyed because of the controversial nature of their findings.

But Pusztai had his supporters. Despite objections from the Royal Society and Sir Robert May, the British government’s chief scientific adviser, his findings were published by the Lancet, and 20 scientists from eight countries signed a petition. In 2005, Pusztai won a “Whistleblower Award” from the German Federation of Scientists.

His story was told by one of his supporters, Dr Christian Vélot, at a major conference in Lisbon last week – The media and the environment: between complexity and urgency – organised by the European Environment Agency (EEA), the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the University of Lisbon’s institute of social sciences.

Dr Vélot, a lecturer in molecular genetics at Université Paris-Sud, was reprimanded for speaking out about the unpredictability of GMOs and appearing as a witness at the trials of activists charged with damaging GM crops.

His research funding was withdrawn and, with it, his students. A national petition attracted 50,000 signatures.

Louis Slesin, editor of New York-based Microwave News, told the conference that the first research study linking childhood leukaemia with proximity to powerlines in 1979 evoked “no response”. Further studies by the New York state department of health and Swedish epidemiologist Anders Ahlbom pointed in the same direction.

But when the US Environmental Protection Agency identified electromagnetic fields as a “probable human carcinogen” in 1990, the White House overruled it “because of pressure from the power industry”, according to Slesin. The US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences “came to the same conclusion” eight years later.

So why are such studies ignored and even dismissed as generating “electrophobia” among the public? Slesin attributed this to the fact that most research in this area in the US is funded by industry or the military. He also warned that if there was a risk of microwave radiation from mobile phones, it would be a “huge problem” worldwide.

Max Planck, the German physicist who developed the quantum theory, probably put it best when he suggested that “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up . . .” In other words, we live and learn.

Take lead in petrol. As David Gee, the EEA’s scientific liaison officer said, “99 per cent of research” on its health effects was controlled by the lead industry, which set up the euphemistically-titled Ethyl Corporation to promote its use.

It was only when lead was taken out of petrol years later that lead levels in children’s teeth fell markedly.

Prof Jacqueline McGlade, the EEA’s executive director, said one of its functions was to “draw a line in the sand and withstand the onslaught from industry and even policymakers” when it publishes unpalatable facts about the state of the environment or risks to human health from pollution. In doing so, it found the media was an important ally.

She instanced the threat to the ozone layer from CFCs, recalling that DuPont had spent a lot of money seeking to debunk this link. However, 1985 satellite images of the ozone hole over Antarctica galvanised the media to become a “formidable force for change” – leading to the Montreal Protocol that banned their use just two years later.

Prof McGlade also cited the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute’s ad campaign in 2006 coinciding with the release of An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s hugely influential climate change movie. The institute’s message was: “Carbon dioxide: they call it pollution, we call it life . . . it’s what we breathe out and plants breathe in.”

A similar contrarian thesis was advanced by The Great Global Warming Swindle, broadcast by Channel 4 in March 2007. Presenting the views of a minority of scientists and commentators who do not believe that CO2 is causing climate change, it “travelled far and wide in public debate”, as Dr Joe Smith, of the Open University, conceded.

This documentary generated 250 complaints to Ofcom, Britain’s media and telecoms regulator, including a peer-reviewed scientific submission that ran to 180 pages. Ofcom found that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had been misrepresented by the programme makers, but let Channel 4 off the hook on “free speech” grounds.

Dr Smith, who has been an academic consultant on several BBC documentaries on climate change, cited The Great Global Warming Swindleas a prime example of the phenomenon of “late sceptics” in the whole debate – or rather “climate change deniers”, as Bulgarian-born journalist Pavel Antonov said he prefers to call them.

According to Dr Smith, researchers need to “look into the social psychology of denial and explore the contrarian personality”. He cautioned that “a lot of little bits of news [on the internet] adds up to a lot of little bits of news” – often generated by “vegetarian anarchist teenagers”, as journalist Clare McCarthy said.

Prof McGlade agreed, saying the worldwide web “could be crammed full of junk, with young people talking to each other with no reference to the outside world.” Google CEO Eric Schmidt said last October that the internet is fast becoming “a cesspool” in which false information thrives.

Brian Trench, who heads the school of communications at Dublin City University, defended the internet as a valuable research tool, saying the huge amount of information it provides “can build up a picture” of reality. But he would also recognise the value to democracy of the print media, radio and television.

We still need newspapers to provide reliable news and perspective on current affairs. This may sound like special pleading from a hard-bitten journalist in an industry that’s losing titles due to the recession and competition from the internet. It’s not; as journalists, it’s our job to find out what’s going on and tell people about it.

Frank McDonald is Environment Editor of The Irish Times