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November 25, 2007


B.  Heart

Dr. Kennedy’s editorial contains unpersuasive thoughts that, while common, seem particularly unfortunate emanating from Science’s editor-in-chief.

Kennedy recalls meeting Arlene Blum when she worked with Bruce Ames during the early 1970s. However, he seems unfamiliar with subsequent critiques by Ames and others about the efficacy of toxicity tests. Kennedy champions safety that he dreamily claims is ensured by European regulations of chemicals. He celebrates Blum as a “scientific advisor” for a California bill to ban “the most toxic” fire retardants from furniture. He displays no interest in considering how society can try to make holistic, informed judgments about materials, instead just asserting his broad belief that industrial chemicals are “a threat to public health.”

Kennedy further reveals a belief that chlorinated and brominated compounds “are double trouble, because they concentrate in food chains and wind up in people, and aren’t biodegradable.” Inconveniently, out in the real world, there is enormous chemical complexity. Our massive dose to chemicals comes from the natural ingredients that make-up our foods, many of which would be classified as toxic, if subjected to the same tests applied to industrial materials. This has been pointed out by Ames and others.

In the environment, a vast universe of synthetic residues, not just chlorine and bromine compounds, could be detected, if analytically sought. Public debate about chemical pollutants tends to be marred by myopic analytic chemistry; disrespect for uncertainties associated with risk assessments; unlikely claims of cause and effect based on statistical associations; and ignorance of the chemical complexity within Nature. The journal Science would best serve smarter public policies about chemicals by drawing attention to related uncertainties and complexities.

B.  Heart

Owing to Kennedy’s curious editorial, I looked for a biographical profile. He was educated in biology and became a professor of environmental science, then a university administrator. Surely an eminent, concerned, worthy gentleman. Nonetheless, it seems possible that such an academic foundation may not include much pharmacology, statistics, or chemistry. Two well-known activists regarding trace exposures to synthetic chemicals have been zoologists, Rachel Carson and Theo Colborn. Such persons, educated in biology, may admirably have profound love for living things, yet not be deeply versed in disciplines salient to risk assessment for trace chemical exposures. Claims about toxic chemical exposures often rest on narrow perspectives, unencumbered by appreciation for surrounding complexities and uncertainties. This seems in keeping with a general problem: incomplete facts, obtained by scientific methods, begetting nonsense wrapped in verisimilitude. Leading some to ponder: what's wrong with science and the media?

Whitney Segura

Great post! To be honest I enjoyed this post very much, it definately brightened my day! Anyways, I look forward to reading some interesting posts! Thanks, Whitney

fire extinguishers

Informative, really well thoughtout and written. I'll be looking out for more posts from you.

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