Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Burden of Proof Should Be on Polluters, Not Children

By Andy Kerr

Column #31 - Go to next column

Length: 749 words

Published: 25 September 1997, Wallowa County Chieftain

The major cause of controversy in environmental debates is over the burden of proof. In criminal proceedings the prosecutor must prove the guilt of the accused; the defendant doesn't have to prove one's innocence.

Is it up to the logging company to prove their logging doesn't harm salmon or to salmon advocates to prove that it does? Is a consensus of most experts enough "proof" or must it be every expert? Must actual harm occur or is a high probability enough? Is a different standard of proof appropriate in the cases of irreparable harm, such as extinction of a species?

Who gets the benefit of the doubt? Developers or the environment?

It's not as simple as simply tallying up the benefits on one side of the ledger and the costs on the other. Such presumes that all values can be expressed in dollars. What is the value of a coal-fired electricity plant near the Grand Canyon versus the value of being able to see across the park through unpolluted air?

It also presumes that the costs are borne by those who benefit. The benefits of the power plant accrue to the stockholders and customers, while the costs are paid by park visitors and the taxpayers (both in the form of tax breaks for building and operating the plant and for higher medical costs for people made sick by polluted air).

Based on studies by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Physicians for Social Responsibility and Environmental Working Group have estimated that air pollution may be responsible for 13% of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome cases.

SIDS is also partly caused by genetic predisposition, prone sleeping position and other factors. But when these other causes are factored out, babies in highly polluted areas were 26% more likely to die of SIDS than babies who breath clean air.

Scientists believe that as many as 80% of childhood cancers are triggered by environmental pollutants. Cancer rates in children are increasing on average 1% annually. Leukemia and brain cancers are rising 2-4% annually. The experts point to more than 75,000 synthetic compounds produced in the last half century: chemicals that have been invented by humans, which do not occur naturally. Fewer than half have been tested for toxicity.

It gets more complicated because that children often are affected by chemicals more than the adult population, which is usually the test group.

It gets even more complicated in that two or more of these synthetic chemicals may combine to be much more harmful that either separately. 75,000 chemicals results in an astronomical number of combinations.

Synthetic chemicals can be human hormone disrupters. Hormones greatly influence human intelligence, reproduction and behavior (and even baldness) and work at extremely low levels—measured in parts per trillion. Synthetic chemicals—even in very small doses—can upset human hormonal systems, resulting increased cancers, diseases of the immune system and reproduction difficulties.

Yet, scientists rarely find the "smoking gun." The extremely tiny amounts of chemicals involved and the involvement of other factors makes it extremely difficult to prove direct cause and effect. Polluters are fond of reminding us that correlation is not necessarily cause. Very true. But the greater the correlation, the more likely the cause. The tobacco industry used the same defense.

Not only do many environmental debates boil down to where the burden of proof is properly placed, new studies suggest that most white males are willing to accept higher levels of risk than others. Perhaps it is because good things happen more often to white males, so they perceive the risk of bad things happening to be less.

Given that white males make most policy decisions (see U.S. Congress) and write most of the news stories (and newspaper columns), societal choices about risk are more risky than if all of society were equally involved.

EPA is considering stronger air pollution rules. Predictably, industry is whining about implementation costs. History has shown that industry (and government) cost estimates of implementing previous improved air quality regulations have been wildly overestimated.

Consider who is doing the whining. Exxon's 1995 gross revenues was $129,084,500,000 (round it to $129 billion). Its CEO made $17.7 million that year, while the average American made $24,700. Profits and stock values of most polluting industries have skyrocketed. It's time for the stockholders and corporate executives to make a tiny bit less, so our children can breathe a lot easier.

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