It's that time of year again, time, not coincidentally, for spring flowers, pagan fertility rituals, Easter egg hunts, resurrections, Arbor Day, and, yes, Earth Day. The environmentalists will no doubt use Earth Day to reflect upon good and bad environmental developments (but especially the bad) from the past year.
But instead, why not join me in looking at a random, impressionistic HealthFactsAndFears.com grab bag of health- and environment-related developments from the past twelve months, ranging from the significant to the silly? It's a bit different from the list of good and bad things you'd hear from the environmentalists.
Before we get to the lists, I should note that various organizations are looking skeptically at Earth Day and/or the causes associated with it, which is good. A panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute featuring Joel Schwartz and others made the case that the environment is getting cleaner, not dirtier. The Orange County Register invited me to write a column about the Luddite motivations behind Earth Day. In London, the Institute of Ideas is holding a big two-day "Genes and Society Festival" featuring open-minded debates on everything from genetically modified crops to stem cell research (I doubt U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback will be attending the event, since he has led efforts to ban all cloning-related research and the news has just come out that he lives in a church; the Institute of Ideas folks, by the way, are colleagues of the Spiked-Online.com staff, who have invited me to speak about tobacco and chemicals at their May 9 event). And a group of Scandinavian scientists has sprung to the defense of Skeptical Environmentalist author Bjorn Lomborg, who says we'd be better off spending money on basic health needs than on exaggerated environmental crises.
Ten Good Developments (Not Necessarily the Top Ten, Mind You, But Good)
Scientists report that eons of cannibalism may account for the widespread presence in humans of a gene that is protective against mad cow disease (and other ailments transmitted by brain-eating which could be good news for zombies, too). About half the population of England, for instance, has the cannibalism-aiding gene, according to the study. (And those Brits always seemed so civilized.) Meanwhile, panic over mad cow disease appears to have subsided, which is as it should be, since humans are far more likely to die from bee stings, dog bites, or even lightning than from mad cow disease (as noted by our friends at http://ConsumerFreedom.com, who were also kind enough to link to our recent piece on the financial damage done by inordinate fear of StarLink biotech corn).
Vegan mothers, report the Centers for Disease Control, may have babies who are slower than average to develop mentally. This isn't good news in itself, obviously, but making the public aware of the problem whether it's caused by veganism or whether veganism and mental development problems are merely correlated, as I've sometimes suspected helps remind people that "all-natural" and meatless does not necessarily equal perfectly healthy.
New research suggests the Earth was warmer in the Middle Ages than it is now (and indeed that the subsequent cooling had negative health effects), which is one of those pieces of news that keeps making it harder to be a doom-and-gloom environmentalist.
High-tech, cleaner-burning coal offers increasing hope of eliminating a genuine, lingering air pollution problem that has particular health consequences in the developing world. (Sweeping bans on coal use may cause us to miss out on some of the potential benefits of the newer, cleaner variety, though.) Much like the news that the U.S. is particularly efficient in its mercury production, this is one of those unglamorous bits of tech news that has positive health consequences but will likely go unappreciated.
A personal note: My friend Bryan Christian is fully recovered from his tuberculosis, acquired during an extended trip to Asia. He is a living testament to modern humans' ability to survive afflictions that once doomed so many.
The Internet continues to aid medical efficiency, with more and more doctors using e-mail for the simplest patient advice, avoiding costly and time-consuming office visits. It's hardly an agrarian route to health and wellness, but it's a quick one.
Michael M. Milligan has written a mystery novel, The Pine Field Killing(see http://www.pinefieldkilling.com), partly inspired by the American Council on Science and Health's materials about the unlikelihood of pesticides killing people.
Bill Gates announced a $200 million initiative to research the developing world's biggest health problems a nice thing to do, and a reminder that what would really alleviate the developing world's health problems is more American-style capitalism, despite frequent claims to the contrary.
The FAA recently decided to weigh a sample of passengers to see if the average passenger weight has increased enough to warrant altering passenger-capacity safety standards. This also seems a vindication of airlines that have begun charging more for passengers large enough to fill two seats. Maybe changes like this will alert Americans to the problem of obesity in a way that the troubling statistics about heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and cancer interalia apparently do not.
Perhaps the official completion of the human genome map (a few years after a private firm beat the government to the punch by mapping most of the genome) will give us some answers to obesity and other problems.
Ten Bad Developments (Not the Worst, Maybe, But Bad)
As if fear of West Nile virus weren't bad enough, some localities have minimized spraying against the mosquitoes who carry the disease and transmit it to humans, since activists and officials are paranoid about what the pesticide will do to humans (which, the evidence suggests, is nothing at all).
Scapegoating chemicals remained a popular pastime in recent months, with arguments over compensation for Agent Orange exposure heading to the Supreme Court, Rob Reiner leading a crusade against perchlorate, and one expert warning ominously that vets from the first Gulf War have since had about a 5% higher mortality rate than the general population though that excess, which has been seen in veterans of other wars as well, is accounted for by accidents, not an increase in disease rates. In some ways, the anti-chemical crowd seems almost sane, though, when contrasted with the occasional outbreak of anti-electrical paranoia, such as the fear that gripped a Wisconsin elementary school with the usual vague itches, dryness of mouth, and other highly subjective symptoms being blamed on the school's electrical fields, leading to special "electrical filters" being installed.
Given the understandable fear of terrorists that gripped the nation over the past year and a half, it's not surprising that people desperately sought ways to protect themselves, including KI (potassium iodide) pills. They can be useful in lowering rates of thyroid cancer in children after radioactive exposure, but that's about it. That hasn't stopped the occasional e-mail ad from reaching my mailbox that makes the pills sound like a shield for the whole body against all the ravages of a nuclear blast, though. (KI pills ought to be popular in Europe, where some anti-nuclear activists argued earlier this year that some 65 million people have been killed by cancer-causing radiation from nuclear power plants and weapons programs without anyone previously noticing.)
The desire to protect children can lead to all sorts of irrationality, and it doesn't help when publications such as the New York Times combine encouraging stats about improved environmental quality and improved child health to imply that the former caused the latter, or when the Washington Post takes it for granted, in articles on EPA regulations, that (a) chemicals are making people sick and (b) kids are ten times more vulnerable than adults, even though the former is an unproven assumption and the latter a near-arbitrary regulatory precaution (see ACSH's book Are Children More Vulnerable to Environmental Chemicals?). The eternal fear of something happening to children did, at least, result in one of this year's most amusing health-scare headlines, from the New York Times, about new yo-yos with water inside, which sometimes splashes on users: "Yo-Yos with Mystery Fluid Worry Parents and Agency."
Meanwhile, the even more fervent desire on the part of some people to protect animals led to a busy year or so for animal rights terrorists, including bombings at a McDonald's restaurant in California last month. The rationale for terrorism is presumably that the perpetrators feel they can't get their message across any other way. Animal rights activists should take heart, though: Michael Savage, the controversial conservative radio/TV commentator that MSNBC caused such a firestorm by hiring (due to his anti-gay and anti-immigrant views), is also an advocate of animal rights and herbal remedies. Apparently, the pro-animal message has reached a broad section of the political spectrum. Could the terrorists stop now, please?
Church-dwelling Sen. Brownback (mentioned above) and other anti-cloning activists (who scored a partial victory when the House voted to ban all human cloning) may have been pleased to hear the news that Dolly the cloned sheep died of lung cancer, which will no doubt be pointed to as evidence that cloning is unhealthy. We must note that cloning still ranks far behind smoking as a cause of lung cancer (but it probably is safe to assume Dolly was a non-smoker).
In an unfortunate blow to the ideal of a sound mind in a sound body, reports suggest that promising new anti-psychotic medications may have had the side effect of causing diabetes. Luckily, barring price controls or onerous regulations, pharmaceuticals overall get increasingly effective and more numerous, so society will have other options.
The temptation to exaggerate terrorism risks is almost irresistible, and not just for commentators on shows like PBS's Avoiding Armageddon. The relatively staid Wall Street Journal got into the act a bit with an editorial board piece presenting as plausible a smallpox-outbreak scenario cooked up by the government called Dark Winter in which everything imaginable goes wrong at the same time and the entire nation is plunged into disease and chaos. Presenting Dark Winter as a likely scenario is as misleading as running a banner headline on the Journal reading "Global Economic Collapse Foreseen." Meanwhile, worries about food-related terrorism have been running rampant, though as ACSH nutrition expert Ruth Kava notes, spreading hepatitis in an oyster bed or some of the other posited techniques simply aren't that efficient as means of killing or injuring people. (People are just more prone to worry about their food than about other sources of risk thus, for example, the excessive recent attention given to an unreleased report that cinnamon might contain a toxic compound; as NutritionNewsFocus.com noted, nothing substantive came of the report, but a press release about the report was enough to get people anxious for a short time.)
Sadly, when activists such as the non-scientists at the Environmental Working Group time a paranoid press release about trace amounts of chemicals in the human body being a health threat to coincide with a more moderate, mainstream CDC report about chemicals merely being present in the human body, you can trust reporters to get confused and write articles like the non-judgmentally-titled "Our Bodies, Our Landfills?" by MSNBC contributor Francesca Lyman. For a more balanced view of the issue, check out ACSH's new booklet, Traces of Environmental Chemicals in the Human Body.
And lest it appear that I think only fringe environmental groups make mistakes and that mainstream science is a perfectly smooth-running machine, I should note that in recent months the British Medical Journal and the Royal Society both issued reports about the scientific peer review process so damning describing widespread cronyism and bias that some have called for a fundamental overhaul of the whole system, such as making reports open for review by the whole world online before publication, though that certainly raises interesting questions about what constitutes publication and who qualifies as a reviewer.
Well, not everything on this HFAF Earth Day round-up was pleasant but let's do it again next year anyway and try to keep level heads in the meantime.