Thursday, June 9, 2016

"Everyone knows someone"

During a NPR story about Congress sending TSCA reform to the White House, a statement by an Environmental Defense Fund scientist, Richard Denison, is probably tendentious:
And I think that's because these issues touch everyone because they deal with our health. Everyone knows someone who got cancer at an early age or who wasn't able to conceive a child. And chemical exposures are increasingly linked to those problems, so I think what everybody felt it was time to upgrade this law.
In an irritable moment, I'll usually make an unfair generalization that 'the environmentalist is the natural enemy of the chemist.'* To suggest that childhood cancers and modern infertility issues are caused by "increasingly linked to" chemical exposure in the environment is a statement that 1) I suspect doesn't have much causal backing in the literature and 2) a strong accusation that will stick in the hearts and minds of the public. As long as folks like Dr. Denison keep making these statements, I'll keep thinking I'm mostly right.

[I would really like to know how Dr. Denison got invited onto NPR in the role of someone who was more or less an explanatory expert, as opposed to a subject matter expert who practices advocacy. If I ever go on a media program to talk about the STEM shortage myth, I will make my priors known immediately. ("Chemjobber is an industrial chemist, a blogger, and a skeptic of the position that America needs more scientists and engineers.") (I guess that announcing that he works for the Environmental Defense Fund is good enough for NPR.)]

*Update: I should probably narrow that to "synthetic** chemist."
**Defined broadly, as in "those who make new molecules/formulations"


  1. Denison holds a PhD in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry from Yale and was on the NAS Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology as a toxicologist. I'd say he is decently qualified as a subject matter expert and that is why he was asked by NPR to talk about the much needed reform to the TSCA.

    1. Would a similarly qualified toxicologist working for the American Chemistry Council have been invited onto NPR to discuss TSCA with a reporter as a subject matter expert?

  2. I don't see what's wrong with Dr. Denison's statement. There are plenty of common, industrial chemicals that have been linked to cancer and/or infertility, and the number is increasing. And yes, too many of my fellow chemists have been complicit in the "Well, we will get around that by swapping that C(CH3)2 group with a sulfone, or making the chain a bit shorter" game in an effort to skirt TSCA, knowing that it will take years or decades for EPA to prove that their new variant is about as bad as the old one.

  3. Denison was involved with the drafting of the new TSCA law, as were officials from the chemical industry trade associations SOCMA and the American Chemistry Council, all working with the staff of the Senate and House committees that put together the new law. You can find videos on youtube of the TSCA reform hearings, going back several years, in which Denison appears quite often. So, he is a pretty good expert on the law, though for balance NPR should have also had someone from the trade groups, or better yet a neutral party like a professor of environmental law or a professor from a school of public health.
    I must admit I do not favor the cancer/infertility/industrial chemical comment. It's all too easy for a lay person to hear such a statement and immediately perceive a cause-and-effect association.