Framing the Dialogue

The Trees Rather Than The Forest

I heard a rather dramatic radio advertisement this morning and since I usually tune out commercials I didn’t really catch all of it. Radio being what it is I heard the ad several more times. The following is the ad by the Evangelical Environmental Network;

It tugs at your heart to think that 700,000 children are being born each year with mercury in their blood caused by “threatening” levels of the pollutant in our waters.  We are encouraged by the Network to thank Pennsylvania’s Senator Robert Casey for his efforts to support EPA’s efforts to restrict emissions from coal-fired power plants.  Pastor Tracey, an evangelical pastor and mom, provides the voice to the ad and if you go to their website you can see her on video.  I would hate to be labeled as a person who is in favor of increased mercury poisoning of unborn children, but I have some problems with Pastor Tracey’s assertions.

First of all I have worked in the environmental field for nearly three decades and have never heard the term “threatening levels” used to describe a pollutant in water.  Use of non-technical, wiggly, unscientific terms to push an agenda makes me very skeptical of the position being forwarded.  I want to see data and hoped to find it at their website.  No luck, but there is a 45 minute podcast by a Dr. Landrigan about mercury and the unborn.  I actually started to listen to the audio, but once the lengthy introduction was over and Dr. Landrigan came on the sound quality was very poor so I quit.  The title of the audio was Mercury and the Unborn and I don’t think there is a lot of doubt that mercury is bad for the unborn and the born.  There is just a lot of information left out:

  1. What is the mercury level in children?
  2. The statistic is that 700,000 children are born with harmful levels of mercury in their blood.  I understand that is a statistic, but how many children are tested for mercury?  It’s been a while since my children are born, but I don’t remember any tests for mercury.  WHERE DOES THAT NUMBER COME FROM?  Their website states “One in six babies, over 700,000 each year, are born with harmful levels of mercury in their blood.”  It does not use the phrase “an estimated” in the statement which I would expect since every baby is certainly not tested.
  3. Assuming the above statistic is correct, what has been the trend in mercury levels in children?  Are more children being born with mercury in their blood today than five years ago, ten years ago, twenty years ago?  The ad gives a presumption that this is an emerging crisis and that Robert Casey has taken steps to resolve it.
  4. The ad purports a direct connection between coal-fired power plants and mercury in children’s blood.  Provide the peer-reviewed, published paper that make the connection in a scientific manner rather than unverified statements produced by an advertising firm. 
  5. What are the trends in air quality as it relates to mercury levels?  Has mercury been increasing over the last 50 years?  It has been my experience that air quality has been at historically good levels and getting better all of the time. 
  6. Is there any connection between the amount of mercury in the environment and China?  There are reports that the Chinese complete two power plants every week and now use more coal than the U.S., Great Britain, and Japan combined.
  7. Please explain the term “threatening levels” and where it is defined.  Are there “threatening levels” for other pollutants?  I would expect that there is one for lead? Zinc? Arsenic? Carbon Dioxide?

Two other things really bother me about this ad and the organization.  The Evangelical Environmental Network is pushing Senator Robert Casey (D-PA) to support EPA’s efforts to help an estimated 700,000 babies yet they ignore the estimated 1,370,000 unborn babies that are aborted each year.  It would seem that his time would be better spent saving those babies who die rather than spend time on the estimated 700,000 who are born with potential health hazards.  I think this is called triage in the medical field…you spend the time on those that are dying and can be saved first.

The other thing that is glaringly missing is what I would call the forest.  Pastor Tracey please explain what happens to the health of the estimated 4,000,000 babies born each year (boosts to 4,370,000 if Casey decides to save them) when hospitals no longer have access to inexpensive, reliable energy.  Take the time, Pastor Tracey, to read about the life expectancy of American children circa 1850 or look at any third-world country today.  Is that what you are looking for?  Would your rather live and raise the children that you display in your videos in the 1950s with polio, measles, and small pox threats?  How about during the killer plague years?  I suspect not as I suspect that the Evangelical Environmental Network is another left-wing group playing on our fears. 

History is full of examples of poorly thought out yet popular efforts to improve the environment.  Consider Rachel Carson’s successful efforts to ban DDT.  She was successful and since malaria-ridden countries no longer can have the benefit of the effective mosquito control chemical an estimated one million people have died unnecessarily every year.  Many experts have shown that Carson’s science was flawed and DDT is harmless and 40 million people have died.  By the way while doing some research for this post I ran accross an article dated today with this headline;

NASA Satellite Confirms Sharp Decline in Pollution From U.S. Coal Power Plants

There are so many groups trying to save a tree without consideration of the forest.   Perhaps it would make me more comfortable with these kind of groups if they provided a list of their funders on their websites.  Not every funder, but those who give more than say $10,000. 

Can we afford the tree at the cost of the forest?

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