Government cancer researchers had awful news to report. A common weed killer on which homeowners and farmers alike relied, they said, was causing cancer in dogs and, possibly, humans too. Published in the prestigious Journal of the National Cancer Institute, the research said the animals were twice as likely to develop the cancer, lymphoma, if their owners sprayed or sprinkled the herbicide on the lawn four or more times a year.
The press responded with all the restraint and thoughtfulness one has come to expect in such controversies. A Washington Post headline warned of “Lethal grass” and “perilous pesticides.” The Chicago Sun-Times reported the story of an 8-year-old boy who worried that he got “nasty” around lawn-care pesticides. A New York Times writer took solace in the weeds themselves saying, “I admire the gumption of the common dandelion, getting nuked every spring with weed killers … that give dogs cancer if they roll around too much on the lawn.”
Such reporting naturally unleashed complaints from nervous dog lovers, who wanted the chemical banned. In an effort to double check the research, the chemical’s manufacturer asked to see the data hardly an unreasonable request given what was at stake. One would have thought an agency confident of its findings would be eager to get the information out to help establish its credibility. But NCI flatly refused to release the data underlying its findings until finally, threatened with a lawsuit, it agreed to do so.
It turned out that as a matter of fact there was a problem with the data. This year, some eight years after the original report, Michigan State researchers who were allowed to see the data found the research relied on questionable conjecture. The NCI researchers had, for example, assumed the dogs had been exposed to the suspect chemical if the owners merely had some kind of professional law service or even if they didn’t know whether they had a lawn service. Never mind whether the dogs had actually been exposed to the chemical or not. “We were unable to support the conclusions” of NCI, the Michigan State scientists said.
It’s useful to recall the story of the killer grass in connection with a seemingly unrelated story that “broke” this week. On Tuesday President Clinton announced what he called “the boldest steps in a generation” to fight air pollution. Standing among children at Maury Elementary School here in Washington, Mr. Clinton made the proposal in their name. “As these children know too well,” he said, “a simple breath of fresh air is not something you can take for granted.”
First announced last May, the plan would phase in tougher emission standards on cars including sport utility vehicles and compel refiners to reduce the amount of sulfur in gasoline. The plan would cost consumers billions of dollars at the pump and at the automobile sales lot, increasing the price of sport utility vehicles by an estimated $200, for example. The restrictions are supposed to suppose to save the lives of 2,400 hypothetical people, but that’s a guesstimate. No one really knows.
The increased costs are taxation as usual in Washington. By passing them through automakers and refiners, consumers never see a line-item that says: “This price increase courtesy of your friendly federal government.” No, it only shows up on the bottom line, leaving consumers to blame businesses for gouging them.
But the more cynical aspect of these particular bold new steps is that just as in the case of the killer grass the government won’t let anyone see the data substantiating all the health claims Mr. Clinton is making for his plan. If a businessman were to advertise the health benefits of his product without providing information sufficient to justify it, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would have him in leg irons in short order for selling snake oil. But those rules don’t apply to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the president. They’re free to sell all the snake oil they wish.
It’s not as though no one has asked for the data. Industry has asked for them. Lawmakers have asked for them. No luck. The problem for the administration is that if the data don’t hold up, its bold new steps probably wouldn’t either. Evidently it doesn’t have much confidence in them. Else why the holdup?
Frustrated, Congress passed a law saying that data from taxpayer-funded studies used to justify government regulations are subject to release under the Freedom of Information Act. This case seems like a good one to test the new law.
Sound science isn’t all that’s at stake here. An increase in automobile prices could keep some consumers out of bigger, safer sport utility vehicles. Why put their safety at risk unnecessarily? Imposing new regulatory burdens on refiners could be costly, especially to those employees who might lose their jobs as a result. Trickle-down unemployment is not exactly an inducement to better health.
Mr. Clinton doesn’t have to worry about such things, of course. The taxpayers can always afford to buy him another car no how much it costs, and presidents don’t usually have to worry about joblessness. All he has to do is stay off the killer grass, clean up the killer air, and he’ll be fine.