Keep the Focus on Real Public Health Threats

In his Oct. 30 radio address, President Clinton announced efforts to protect Americans from "some of the most dangerous chemicals ever known." He incorrectly encouraged us to believe that very low exposures to certain chemicals are increasing our risk of cancer and other diseases.

He pointed his finger squarely at industry for releasing chemicals like dioxin, PCBs and mercury into the air we breathe and the water we drink. He then promised to protect families from these chemicals by requiring industry to tell us when they release even a tiny amount of certain chemicals.

Is the president advancing public health? Is he "empowering" us? No. The president's speech is unscientific rhetoric that promises to protect us from inconsequential health risks.

First, PCBs are no longer manufactured by industry in the United States. Some electrical equipment contained PCBs before 1977, when they were banned. Although some equipment in use contains PCBs, this is being replaced or decontaminated.

Further complicating PCB emissions is that the public sector, not industry, is the main source of emissions. Ironically, the president omitted that the government is the leading producer of PCB emissions. Municipal waste incineration was found to be responsible for more than half the PCB emissions, according to a 1990 Environmental Protection Agency study. Yet the type of emissions targeted by the president account for less than 20 percent of the total.

Second, there is no evidence that very low levels of dioxin in the environment pose a hazard to human health. Extensive studies of people exposed to large amounts of dioxins through worker-related exposures, accidents or military service indicate that people would not get sick from the low levels in our environment. The primary source of evidence for the hazards associated with dioxin come from experiments on rodents.

Finally, people routinely ingest synthetic and natural chemicals that have been shown to cause significant adverse effects in animals, including cancer. Drs. Bruce Ames and Lois Swirsky Gold, of the University of California at Berkeley, have rightly pointed out that "no human diet can be free of naturally occurring chemicals that are rodent carcinogens." These leading scientists have concluded that, "of the chemicals that people eat, 99.99 percent are natural."

The bottom line is that the proposed regulation does not "empower" us, but rather draws the attention of consumers to hypothetical risks. After hearing President Clinton, one would think that America faces a public health problem from the current releases of dioxins into the environment - but there is no real evidence for that claim whatsoever.

By distracting us from the real public health threats around us, President Clinton and his EPA colleagues are doing a disservice to public health.