From "Bad Environmental and Resource Scares", Chapter 18 of Julian L Simon's 1996 The Ultimate Resource 2, Princeton University Press, pp 258-273, and "Healing the Planet" afternote on p 274.

This extract is reproduced here with the kind permission of the Simon family.


Possibly Dangerous Threats

Questionable Issues

Definitely Disproven Threats

Afternote: Healing the planet

Known Killers

These are important pollutions that certainly can kill many: plague, malaria (the worst killer in the nineteenth century into the twentieth century);[i] typhus, tropical yellow fever, encephalitis, dengue fever, elephantiasis, African sleeping sickness, river blindness, and dozens of other diseases carried by insects, often through the air; cholera, dysentery, typhoid fever carried by polluted water; leprosy, tuberculosis, smallpox, and other epidemic diseases. Spoiled food (botulism and other ills) from primitive preparation and lack of proper storage. Cigarettes (tobacco causes 25-40 percent of all cancer deaths in the United States).[ii] Poor diet (causes perhaps 35 percent of all cancer deaths in the United States).[iii] High doses of medical X-rays. Dust particulates and smoke from burning coal and wood. Overuse of almost anything - for example, alcohol and drugs. Guns, autos, ladders. Work-related exposure to formaldehyde, EDB,[iv] Bhopal-type chemical accidents and kepone.[v] Chernobyl-like nuclear accidents due to carelessness and bad design. Coal-mining, police work, and fire fighting. War, homicide, suicide, forced starvation, and other deaths caused by human predators.

Figure 18-1 shows some relative risks. [Not shown here.]

 Possibly Dangerous Threats
These are some phenomena which may be dangerous but whose effects (if any) are not well-understood: Too much ozone in Southern California (see chapter 15 concerning Krupnick and Portney). Low-voltage electric and magnetic fields around power lines and appliances.[vi] (There is no known evidence of damage to health from either. They are listed in this section only because some reputable scientists are still asking for more research on the subjects, although others say it is a waste of funds.)
 Questionable Issues
 These are phenomena whose dangers have been alleged. They have not been supported by any solid evidence, but have not yet been conclusively disproven:

1900s - 1990s: Global warming.

? - 1990s: Ozone layer. See discussion to follow. [Not included on this page]

1992: "Big Drop in Sperm Count Since '38."[vii] A Danish study asserts drop of almost 25 percent in human sperm count in past half-century. PCBs are said to be the cause by some "experts". Would anyone care to bet on whether this new scare turns out to be valid?

1992: Chlorinated water causing birth defects. Study finds that among 81,055 births in New Jersey, fifty-six were born with spinal defects, and 8 of those were born to women exposed to high levels of chlorine in the water; two or three would have been expected among this group if there were no effect. Since every medicine has side-effects, and just about everything "causes" cancer in one fashion or another, it would not be surprising if chlorine does, too. But given the sample size, and the number of such possible effects that are examined by researchers, the odds are very high that this effect will be found not to exist. Yet it occasioned large newspapers stories with headlines such as "Chlorination Byproducts in Water Seen as Risk During Pregnancy."[viii] No mention is made in the article of the huge pollution-reducing effects of putting chlorine into the water.

1992: "Study Suggests Electric Razor Use May Raise Risk of Getting Cancer". A study of 131 men who had leukemia. For readers some years in the future, you may test the plausibility of new scares then by checking whether this and other 1992 scares have been validated or disconfirmed by then. (Also, only about 3 new cases of leukemia are reported per year per 100,000 people.)[ix] And consider, too: are there any dangers from shaving with a straight-edge razor that are avoided with an electric razor?


Definitely Disproven Threats

Earliest history to the present: Land shortage. As nomadic groups grew, land scarcity increased. This led to agriculture. This is just the first in the sequences of technical advances → population increase → new food or land scarcities → new advances described in chapters 5 and 6.

???BCE: Running out of flint. Worries about running out of resources have been with us since the beginning of time. Shortages surely occurred in many places. Archaeologists studying two Mayan villages in Central America found that about 300 BCE in the village far from plentiful flints supplies, there was much more conservation and innovation by reusing the flint in broken implements, compared to the village with plentiful flint nearby.[x] The Neanderthals could produce five times more cutting edge from a block of flint as could their predecessors. And successors of the Neanderthals increased their efficiency to produce eighty times as much cutting edge per block as the Neandertal’s predecessors.[xi] Eventually, flint was replaced by metal, and scarcity declined. This is the prototype of all resource scares.

1700 BCE?: Running out of copper. Iron was developed as a replacement for tool manufacture.

1200 BCE?: Tin. New sources were found from time to time. Bronze became increasingly scarce and high-priced in the Middle East and Greece because of a tin shortage probably caused by a war-induced breakdown in long-distance trade. Iron-working and steel-making techniques developed in response.[xii]

550 BCE?: Disappearing forests. The Greeks worried over the deforestation of their country, in part for lack of wood to build ships. When scarcity became acute, shipbuilders shifted to a new design that required less wood.[xiii] Greece is well forested now.

1500s, 1600s: Running out of wood for fuel.

1500s to 1700s CE: Loss of trees in Great Britain. See chapter 10 for outcome.

Late 1700s: With the invention of lightning rods came fear of electricity accumulating in earth (Ben Franklin's time).[xiv]

1798: Food - the Malthusian mother of all scares that warns: increasing population must lead to famine. Since then there has been continuous improvement in average nutrition (see chapter 5).

1800s: Running out of coal in Great Britain. Jevons's book documented the scare. See chapter 11 for outcome.

1850s and intermittently thereafter: Running out of oil. See chapter 12 for outcome.

1895-1910: Rubber. Wild-grown public-property supplies became exhausted and the price of rubber rose from $0.50 to $3. Plantations were established in response. Price fell back to $0.50 by 1910, and then went further down to $0.20.[xv]

1900s: Timber in the United States. See chapter 10 and Sherry Olson (1971).

1922-1925: Rubber again. British-Dutch cartel squeezed supplies, and prices tripled. Increased scarcity provoked conservation in production, increased productivity on plantations, and recycling. Price returned to $0.20 and cartel was broken. Research on synthetics began as a result of the price run-up.[xvi]

1930s, 1950s, 1980s in the U.S., other periods in other countries: Water. See chapters 10 and 17.

1940-1945: Rubber again. War cut supplies. The research on synthetics, induced by the earlier episode, was available for rapid development.

1945: DDT, sensationalized by Rachel Carson in 1962. Said to cause hepatitis.[xvii] Discontinued in United States in 1972. Known then to be safe to humans (caused death only if eaten like pancakes).[xviii] Some damage to wildlife under special conditions.[xix]

With the aid of DDT, "India had brought the number of malaria cases down from the estimated 75 million in 1951 to about 50,000 in 1961. Sri Lanka...reduced malaria from about three million cases after World War II to just 29 in 1964". Then as the use of DDT went down, "Endemic malaria returned to India like the turnaround of a tide.” By 1977 "the number of cases reached at least 30 million and perhaps 50 million".

In 1971, amidst the fight that led to the banning of DDT in 1972, the president of the National Academy of Science - distinguished biologist Philip Handler - said "DDT is the greatest chemical that has ever been discovered". Commission after commission, top expert after top Nobel prize-winning expert, has given DDT a clean bill of health.[xx]

1950s: Irradiated foods. Now approved in 30 countries for various uses, approved in United States, 1992.[xxi]

1957 - continues: Fluoridated water. The arguments used against fluoridating water were eerily similar to those later used against nuclear power - but from the other end of political spectrum.[xxii]

1960s: PCBs. Banned in 1976.[xxiii] A side-effect of banning PCBs is malfunctions in large electrical transformers. One such case caused the July 29, 1990, blackout covering 14 square miles in Chicago, leading to rioting and three deaths.[xxiv]

Early 1960s: Low-level nuclear radiation. Rather than being harmful, this was later shown to produce a beneficial effect called hormesis (see chapter 13).

November, 1959: Thanksgiving cranberries and pesticides.

Mid-1960s: Mercury dental fillings. Declared safe in 1993 by U.S. Public Health Service.[xxv]

Mid-1960s: SST threat to ozone layer; two scientific flip-flops within a few years.[xxvi] (See below.)

1970: Mercury in swordfish and tuna.[xxvii]

1970: Cyclamates banned for causing bladder cancer. Totally cleared in 1985. [xxviii] But ban never lifted.[xxix]

1972: Red dye #2. One Russian study claimed dye caused cancer. Many subsequent studies absolved the dye. Nevertheless, banned in 1976.[xxx]

1970s (and earlier): Running out of metals (see chapters 1-3).

1970s: Saccharin causing bladder cancer. Exonerated in 1990s.[xxxi] But warning still required on containers.

Early 1970s: Pesticides aldrin and dieldrin, suspended in 1974.[xxxii] Chlordane and heptachlor. All banned in the 1970s because of belief that they cause tumors in mouse livers. But "[t]here has never been a documented case of human illness or death in the United States as the result of the standard and accepted use of pesticides. Although Americans are exposed to trace levels of pesticides, there is no evidence that such exposure increases the risk of cancer, birth defects, or any other human ailment."[xxxiii]

1970s: Acid rain. Shown in 1990s not to harm forests. (See below.)

1970s: Agent Orange (dioxin). Dioxin declared safe by federal court in 1984 when veterans brought suit.[xxxiv] August, 1991: New York Times front-page headline was "U.S. Backing Away from Saying Dioxin is a Deadly Peril". The story continued, "Exposure to the chemical, once thought to be much more hazardous than chain smoking, is now considered by some experts to be no more risky than spending a week sunbathing". Concerning the Agent Orange case: "Virtually every major study, including a 1987 report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), has concluded that the evidence isn't strong enough to prove that the herbicide is the culprit" in the bad health of some Vietnam veterans.[xxxv]

Mid-1970s: Humanity in danger because of a millennia-long reduction in the number of varieties of plants used for food. Belied by evidence on famine prior to the 1970s and since then, as explained in the afternote to chapter 6.

1976: Chemical residues at Love Canal.[xxxvi] Scare ended 1980; solid scientific consensus is that there was no observable damage to humans from living near Love Canal.

1976: Explosion of PCB plant in Seveso, Italy. The PCBs caused no harm to anyone. (See the statement by Haroun Tazieff on page 573 [in present chapter 40].

Mid- and late-1970s: Global cooling. By 1980s, replaced by the scare of global warming. (See below.)

1978: Asbestos in schools and other buildings.[xxxvii] The ill-considered regulations on the use of asbestos not only are costly, but have had a devastating side-effect: the Challenger space shuttle disaster. The sealant used to replace the asbestos-based O-ring sealant in the rocket engine that launches space shuttles malfunctioned at the low temperature at which Challenger was launched, causing the explosion shortly after launch and deaths of the astronauts. As in many such cases, it is impossible to foresee all the consequences of an environmental regulation and as David Hume and Friedrich Hayek teach us, we should be extremely wary of altering evolved patterns of behavior lest we make such tragic blunders with our "rational" assessments of what our social interventions may bring about. For more on asbestos, see the 1992 article by Malcolm Ross - a hero in bringing to light the facts about asbestos - and Bennett's 1991 book.

1970s - 1980s: Oil spills. The worst cases of oil spills have all been far less disastrous to wildlife than initially feared.

1980s: Radon. Eventually, too little radon found dangerous, rather than too much.[xxxviii]

1979: Lead ingestion by children lowers IQ. Study by Herbert Needleman led to the federal ban on leaded gasoline. Study entirely repudiated in 1994.[xxxix] No mention of again allowing leaded gasoline has been made, however.

1981: Coffee said to cause 50 percent of pancreatic cancers. Original researchers reversed conclusion in 1986. Also, no connection found between caffeine intake of pregnant women and birth defects.[xl]

1980s, 1990s: BST (Bovine somatotropin). Assertion that this growth-promoting element will make cows more liable to infection proven false.[xli]

1981: Malathion and medfly threat to agriculture in the West. Malathion found safe in 1981 as a medfly killer, after its use had been threatened.

1982: Times Beach dioxin threat, found to have caused no harm to humans. In 1983 dioxin was cleared of charges. The Centers for Disease Control asserts that the Times Beach evacuation was unnecessary.[xlii]

1984: Ethyl dibromide (EDB). Banned, though no one harmed. Result: more dangerous pesticides used instead.[xliii]

Mid-1980s, continues: Ozone hole. No connection found between thinner ozone layer and skin cancer. See below.

1986: In November, warning of lead in drinking water. In December, retraction by EPA.[xliv]

1987: Alcohol said to be responsible for 50 percent increase in breast cancers.[xlv]

1987: Sand from Californian and other beaches. Silica was listed as a "probable" human carcinogen, and warnings were required by the State of California on containers of sand and limestone. Has been classified as carcinogenic by OSHA and other regulatory agencies.[xlvi]

1989: Red dye #3. This scare came and went in a hurry.[xlvii]

?DES (Diethylstilbesterol): Cattle growth hormone said to cause cervical cancer. Banned.[xlviii] Only cause for fear was finding of vaginal cancer when DES used in large doses as a human drug during pregnancy.[xlix]

1989: Aflatoxin in corn. Another supposed threat to our food supply.

1989: Alar.[l]

? Nuclear winter: Atom bombs can surely kill us. But this threat to humanity as a whole was soon found to be shoddy science.

1991: Smoke from Kuwait oil fires and global cooling. No global effects found.[li] "Fires in Kuwait Not a Threat to Climate, Federal Study Finds."[lii] First reports estimated an "unprecedented ecological catastrophe, the likes of which the world has never seen", with five years required to extinguish all the fires. The last fire was extinguished within six months.[liii]

1991: Lefthanded people die earlier. Proved unsubstantiated in 1993.[liv] False scare based on faulty age-compositional data.

1993: Cancer caused by cellular telephones. This scare is an excellent example of the scare epidemic. A single layman made the charge on a television talk show of a link between his wife's brain tumor and her use of cellular phones. That was enough to produce front-page stories for days, activity in Congress, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Cancer Institute, plus statements by manufacturers that studies of the matter will be forthcoming. All scientists quoted have stated that there is no evidence of a connection. In the meantime, stock prices of firms in the industry fell substantially—the price of Motorola, the largest manufacturer, fell 20 percent[lv]—and many persons became fearful of using their phones.


Afternote: Healing the planet


The phrase of the 1990s seems to be “heal the earth” or “… the planet.” It falls from the lips of Jewish rabbis (the only kind, I suppose), Roman Catholic churchmen, Protestant ministers, as well as environmental activists such as Paul Ehrlich, who so named a book. What means this?

The phrase seems to suggest that the planet is sick or injured. When one inquires in what way, one learns that the “problem” is the difference between the way the Earth is now and the way it “originally” was. The “cure” is to be found in “virgin” woods, wilderness untrammeled by the feat of modern woman or man, with all species restored to their numbers before recent times, and without traces of structures built or substances deposited in recent centuries. In other words, all evidence of human activity during the last two hundred or two thousand years is to be “healed.”

The only way that this could be done, of course, is to restore the number of human beings to what it was about ten thousand years ago. And the environmental activists—especially Garrett Hardin and Paul Ehrlich—do not shrink from reducing the numbers of human beings.

The condition of the planet that they call for has nothing to do with its excellence for human health or living standards. The evidence is overwhelming that people now live more healthily and with more of the material goods they desire than ever in the past, and there is no reason to believe that the trend will not continue in the same direction forever. Obviously, then, “healing” will not make human life better in the future. It is to be done for the sake of the planet itself, whatever that means.

It could not be clearer that the view that the planet needs “healing” rests entirely on one set of values. More generally, the call to “heal” the planet is a feel-good notion, full of sentiment but empty of content, and perhaps motivated largely by selfishness.




Adelman, Ken. “Surmounting the Fear-Mongers,” Washington Times, July 30, 1993, editorial.

Barrons, Keith C. 1981. Are Pesticides Really Necessary? Chicago: Regnery.

Bennett, Michael J. 1991. The Asbestos Racket, Washington: Free Enterprise Press.

Edwards, J. Gordon. 1992b. “The Myth of Food Chain Biomagnification.” In Lehr 1992, pp. 125-34.

Feinstein, Alvan R, 1988. “Scientific Standards in Epidemiologic Studies of the Menace of Daily Life.” Science 242 (December 2): 1257-63.

Handler, Philip. 1970. Testimony before the Congressional Subcommittee on Science, Research and Development. July 21. Quoted by Wolman 1971.

Harrison, Whelan, Claus, George, and Karen Bolander, Ecological Sanity (New York: David McKay, 1977).

Hobbs, Peter V. and Lawrence F. Radke, 1992. “Airborne Studies of the Smoke from the Kuwait Oil Fires” Science 256 (May 15): 987-91.

Hume, David. 1777/1985. Essay: Moral, Political, and Literary. Edited by Eugene F. Miller. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics.

Jevons, W. Stanley. 1865. The Coal Question. London: Macmillan.

Jukes , Thomas H. 1992b. “The Tragedy of DDT” In Lehr, pp.217-22.

Krupnick, Alan J., and Paul R. Portney. 1991. “Controlling Urban Air Pollution: A Benefit-Cost Assessment,” Science 252 (April 26): 522-28.

Leakey, Richard E. 1981. The Making of Mankind. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Lehr, Jay. 1992. Rational Readings on Environmental Concerns. New York: Van Nostrand.

Maddox, John. 1972. The Doomsday Syndrome. London: Macmillan.

Maurice, Charles, and Charles W. Smithson. 1984. The Doomsday Myth. Stanford: Hoover Institution.

Mazur, Allan. 1981. Dynamics of Technical Controversy. Washington, D.C.: Communications Press.

Mellanby, Kenneth. 1989. “With Safeguards, DDT Should Still Be Used.” Wall Street Journal, September 12, p. A26.

Morgan, M. Granger. 1990. Review of Currents of Death: Power Lines, Computer Terminals, and the Attempt to Cover Up Their Threat to Your Health, by Paul Brodeur. In Scientific American (April): 118-23.

Olson, Sherry H. 1971. The Depletion Myth: History of Railroad Use of Timber. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Ray, Dixie Lee, with Lou Guzzo. 1990. Trashing the Planet. Chicago: Regnery Gateway.

Raymond, Robert. 1984. Out of the Fiery Furnace. Australia: Macmillan.

Ross, Malcolm. 1992. “Minerals and Health”The Asbestos Problem.” In Leyr, pp. 101-14.

Schiager, Keith J. 1992. “Radon—Risk and Reason.” In Leyr, pp. 619-26.

Singer, S Fred. 1992. “My Adventures in the Ozone Layer.” In Lehr, pp. 535-45.

Tierney, John. 1988. “Not To Worry.” In Hippocrates (January/February): 29-32, 34, 37-38.

Tullock, Gordon, and Gordon Brady. 1992. “The Risk of Crying Wolf.” In Predicting Ecosystem Risk, edited by Cairns, Niederlehner, and Orvos. Princeton Scientific.

Whelan, Elizabeth M. 1985. Toxic Terror: The Truth Behind the Cancer Scare. Jameson Books.

Whelan, Elizabeth M. and Fredrick J. Stare. 1992. In Panic in the Pantry, edited by Stephen Barrett. Buffalo, N.Y. Prometheus Books.

Williams, Walter. 1992. “Environmental Update.” The Reporter (September 21).


[i] Barrons 1981, p. 97.
[ii] Tierney 1988, p. 35, adapted from Doll and Peto.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Whelan 1985.
[vi] Morgan 1990.

[vii] San Francisco Chronicle, September 11, 1992, p. A13.
[viii] Washington Post, December 17, 1992, p. A11.
[ix] Wall Street Journal, November 13, 1992, p. B2.
[x] Maurice and Smithson 1984, chapter 9.
[xi] Leakey 1981, p. 151.
[xii] Raymond 1984, chapter 3.

[xiii] Maurice and Smithson 1984, chapter 8.
[xiv] Mazur 1981, p. 1.
[xv] Maurice and Smithson 1984, chapter 3.
[xvi] Ibid.
[xvii] Maddox 1972.
[xviii] Mellanby 1989.

[xix] General references: Harrison, Whelan, Claus, George, and Karen Bolander, Ecological Sanity (New York: David McKay, 1977). Malaria cases in Ceylon in Whelan 1985.
[xx] Whelan 1985 and the host of references therein; Jukes 1992b. Re food chain and DDT, see Edwards 1992.
[xxi] American Council on Science and Health 1982/1988.

[xxii] Mazur 1981
[xxiii] Lehr 1992, p. 86; Ray and Guzzo 1990, chapter 7.
[xxiv] Williams 1992.

[xxv] Washington Post, January 26, 1993, Health, p. 5.

[xxvi] Singer, 1992.
[xxvii] Gosline 1987, personal correspondence.
[xxviii] Ibid.
[xxix] Whelan, correspondence, January 22, 1993.
[xxx] Whelan and Stare 1992, pp. 112-13.

[xxxi] Newsweek, May 11, 1992, p. 69.

[xxxii] Whelan 1985, p. 111.
[xxxiii] Ibid, p. 109.
[xxxiv] Ibid., p. 187-90; Ray and Guzzo 1990, chapter 7.

[xxxv] Science, vol. 257, September 4, 1992, p. 1335.

[xxxvi] Whelan p. 94.

[xxxvii] Ray and Guzzo 1990, p 83. Bennett 1991; Ross 1992.

[xxxviii] Schiager 1992.

[xxxix] The work was bad beyond ordinary scientific error. After much inquiry, the Office of Research Integrity of the U.S Department of Health and Human Services decided that although it was entirely flawed, and correction should be published, “no scientific misconduct was found.” Washington Post, March 9, 1994, p. A7.

[xl] Feinstein 1988, p. 1259; Orient 1992. Washington Post, February 3, 1993, p. A2.

[xli] Wall Street Journal, January 7 1991, p. A14, cited by Tullock and Brady 1992.

[xlii] Whelan 1985, pp. 185-86.
[xliii] Ibid, pp. 120ff.
[xliv] ACSH News Release.
[xlv] Feinstein 1988, p. 1259.

[xlvi] Wall St Journal, March 22, 1993, p. A1.

[xlvii] Whelan 1989.
[xlviii] Gosline, 1987.
[xlix] Whelan correspondence, January 22, 1993.
[l] Whelan 1985; Ray and Guzzo, 1990, pp. 78-79.
[li] Hobbs and Radke, 1992.

[lii] Washington Post, June 25, 1991, p. A3.

[liii] Adelman 1993.

[liv] Washington Post, February 14, 1993, p. A3.

[lv] Ibid., p. C6; Newsweek, February 8, 1993, p. 24.

 Forecasting Principles: Analogies to the alarm over dangerous manmade global warming

Analogy description TitleAsbestos and Lung Disease Date: started in 1939


Forecast of impending disaster:

·       Alarm began in the 1960’s when a much higher than normal mortality rate was discovered in US shipyard workers of the 1940’s, who had prolonged exposure to high concentrations of asbestos, and that manufacturers were suppressing this damage to workers. Thus, an avalanche of compensation claims commenced in the USA, along with alarming forecasts. 

·       Widespread national alarm increased because of the misunderstanding about “asbestos” which commonly described several types of fibrous minerals, including amphiboles (blue and brown asbestos) used in shipbuilding as a fire retardant, and chrysotile (white asbestos cement) commonly used in buildings as a fire retardant.   So potentially millions of people could be exposed to a deadly hazardous material.  â€˜In 1982, Selikoff estimated 27 million Americans are “exposed to asbestos” ‘(source: )

·       Asbestos- related cancer cases in western Europe were predicted to soar over the next 35 years, causing half a million deaths, with half from mesothelioma (Peto, ’99, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine) (source: )

·       INSERT: - Actual disease & death numbers / ratios… (this is difficult to find!)


Forecasting Method: (methods used to forecast the catastrophe

Method 1 - Extrapolation to a near-zero dose of a genuine effect from a large dose

·       From the tragedy caused by prolonged and high level exposure to ‘asbestos’, speculation about low level or uncertain levels of exposure through inhalation of asbestos fibres leading to lung disease (i.e. “one fibre can kill”, source: ) caused alarming forecasts of likely trends of diagnosis of millions with disease, such as asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.   This speculation spiralled the likely trend for compensation, particularly in USA.

·         “even the slightest contact with its ‘deadly fibres’ can cause cancer” (Booker & North, Telegraph UK, 6/11/07)


Method 2 - Extrapolating that a hypothesized weak effect might become important over time or for a large population.

·       Given the mortality rate and disease of workers and miners exposed to amphiboles (blue and brown asbestos), provided the basis for this hazard to be projected onto other fibrous minerals commonly known as ‘asbestos’ (including white asbestos or chrysotile), which was extensively used in millions of buildings in the form of white asbestos cement (made up of 12% chrysotile and 88% cement). 

·       Predictions of numbers of deaths and disease and compensation claims deemed likely due to the risk of ongoing exposure by millions of people to white asbestos, even though the differentiation of the dangers of each type of ‘asbestos’ mineral weren’t clear. â€œone type of asbestos was as dangerous as another” source: ).   Scientific studies found that chrysotile, white asbestos, in its manufactured form poses no measurable risk to health (source: ). And this result has been challenged and is an ongoing debate for 40 years.


Actions called for: (actions by government or by others)

·         Governments, initially in USA and Europe, then followed into other countries, were asked to

·       Ban the use of asbestos, the production of asbestos, and that substitute products are to be used.

·       Regulate and require the removal of asbestos from millions of buildings to stop ongoing human exposure to it, and prevent predicted human catastrophic numbers of asbestos related illness.

·       Introduce legislation, and regulations relating to asbestos, including licensing of companies and workers in the testing and removal of asbestos

·       As of today, at least 46 countries have banned all forms of asbestos, while consumption increased in some other countries (World Bank Group, 2009)."

·         Legal compensation be paid to plaintiffs and through class actions by companies

·         Research into asbestos related production and effects of exposure

·         The EU ban of asbestos by a political powerful lobby group ‘Ban Asbestos’ in 1991, supported by law firms, asbestos contractors, and multi-national manufacturers of asbestos substitutes, trade unions, ‘progressive politicians’, ‘concerned scientists’, environmental pressure groups eg. Greenpeace, and ‘asbestos victim support groups’.


Endorsements of the forecast:

Effects of asbestos were endorsed by various scientists, politicians, and reports of the dangers of asbestos were widely covered by the mass media, which egged on the alarmism. Leading scientists from institutions (such as …. University), politicians (such as ……); media - Reports of the dangers were widely covered by the mass media, which egged on the alarmism.

·       Legal compensations endorsed asbestos to be damaging to human health, e.g.Lawsuit ‘Borel case’ 1973 awarded compensation to victims exposed to asbestos, further increasing claim numbers, soaring in the USA by the end of 1980’s.

·       Scientists studies by Dement, 1994, and Smith and Wright, 1996, supported lobbyists’ campaign by showing that chrysotile to be more dangerous than supposed, as the main contributor to pleural mesothelioma, demonstrating the harmful effects from asbestos exposure on people

·       EU directive, 1999/77, ruled that ‘no threshold level of exposure has yet been identified below which chrysotile asbestos does not pose carcinogenic risks’. It imposed a ban on the importing, manufacture or sale of any products containing white asbestos, to be made absolute by 2005 throughout the EU. Law interpreted that “just one fibre was enough to kill”

·       The UK’s Health Department (HSE), in 2002, introduced new regulations, EU law compliant, banning chrysotile, contradicting their own findings.


Challenges to the forecast – counter findings that asbestos not as dangerous as thought

·       Independent scientific experts found white ‘asbestos’, or chrysotile, not to be as dangerous as blue and brown asbestos, or amphiboles, and that the danger chrysotile poses to human health to be insignificant. The white asbestos cement which made up more than 90% of asbestos in all buildings in USA was found to have non-existent “fibre release”, therefore not damaging to the lungs.

·       US federal courts, 1991, reversed the ban on white asbestos, stating that on EPA’s own data, “it was likely to cause many fewer deaths than ‘the ingestion of toothpicks’. (Source:     )”

·       Scientific study, in UK, 1996, found that the ‘degree of hazard’ depended on type of fibre (greater with amphiboles than with chrysotile) and the size and length of the fibres (long fibres more hazardous than short); and that ‘the balance of toxicological evidence does not support the “no-threshold” model for asbestos-induced lung cancer. This indicated that there was a threshold level of exposure below which asbestos was not dangerous.

·       Harvard University study, 1998, compared the official projection of 1 in 100,000 faced lifetime risk of dying from exposure to Asbestos in buildings, with other types of death and found the chances of dying, for example, in an air crash to be 730 times higher.

·       Leading British statisticians, John Hodgson and Andrew Darnton published a paper in 2000, based on comprehensive review of all major studies (70) over past 20 years that included exposure levels, on highly exposed groups such as insulation workers, textile workers and miners.

·     Results showed that for the vast majority of population the risks faced by low level of exposure & the risk of contracting mesothelioma from contact with asbestos cement was so low, as to be ‘probably insignificant’. And the risk of lung cancer was argued that this was ‘zero’.


Outcomes of the conflict: (over the alarming forecast and calls for action, including forecast accuracy)

·       The forecast accuracy has been wrong in degree (minor effects actually occurred) for ‘white’ asbestos (chrysotile) which was predicted to cause the same increase in illness and mortality as ‘brown and blue’ asbestos (amphiboles). 

·       Government programs remain in place, and costly policies continue to be implemented, after predicted levels of illness and death have not occurred

·       Alarm and debate has continued by advocates of family members with asbestos related disease (ARD), lobby groups, scientists reports, even though predicted levels of illness and death have not occurred because there is ongoing debate about the purity of the chrysotile fibre when mined as it is often found with amphibole fibre, and therefore its existence in buildings etc. may not be without harmful effects. Also developing countries are continuing to use chrysotile asbestos even though many western countries have banned it, and working conditions are not necessarily regulated to the level of western countries, so scientific study continues on the different type of fibres, and which analytical methods should be used to make accurate identification, and for studies of workers exposed to the fibres.


List References

Booker C, & North R, 2007, Scared to Death, Continuum UK, London

Booker C, & North, Telegraph UK, 6 Nov 2007

Still to list the articles

Date: In 1990, Barbara Balaban (a breast cancer survivor and activist as well as the director of the Adelphi New York Statewide Breast Cancer Hotline and Support Program) asserted a link between breast cancer and environmental toxins at a conference, where she publicly disagreed with the findings of a study of breast cancer on Long Island conducted by the New York State Health Department.[i] The study addressed only biological and demographical causes of breast cancer. Balaban believed that there were additional risk factors responsible for the particular high incidence rates of breast cancer in the Long Island area.

Forecast of impending disaster: Following this event, several studies looked for correlations between the presence of environmental contaminants and the incidence of breast cancer. Most notably in 1993, Wolff, Toniolo, Lee, Rivera and Dubin suggested that environmental chemical contamination with organochlorine residues, such as DDT and PCBs, might be an important factor in breast cancer.[ii] They added that given the widespread dissemination of organochlorine insecticides in the environment, the implications are far-reaching for public health intervention, not only in Long Island, but worldwide.

Forecasting Method: Wolff and Toniolo compared DDE and PCB levels between a group of 58 women with a diagnosis of breast cancer 1-6 months after they entered New York University Women’s Health Cohort study and a second group of 171 subjects from the same cohort population who did not develop cancer. The results showed that mean levels of DDE and PCBs were higher for breast cancer patients than non-breast cancer patients, but did not provide evidence on the involvement of these chemicals in the development of breast cancer.

Actions called for: In the Senate, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Alphonse D’Amato from Long Island called for increased funding for breast cancer research. In 1992, Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) drafted legislation that called for a government-funded case-control study “to assess biological markers for environmental and other risk factors contributing to the incidence of breast cancer…in the State of New York.” [iii]

Endorsements of and challenges to the forecast: Like Barbara Balaban, many breast cancer survivors and activists in Long Island, inspired by the success of AIDS activists, formed a number of organizations, such as One-in-Nine, to raise public concern regarding breast cancer and to press government funding to research into its causes. In 1991, the National Breast Cancer Coalition was formed to lobby Congress for research. To strengthen their case, famous speakers such as Susan Love (leading breast cancer surgeon and author) and Devra Lee Davis (epidemiologists) helped articulate the activists’ purpose. On the other hand, renowned epidemiologists such as Dr. Deborah Winn (National Cancer Institute), Michael Bracken (Yale University) gave criticism of the Long Island study. Bracken, in an interview conducted by the New York Times, said that such a study “is not so much science as a political response.” [iv]

Outcomes of the conflict: In June 1993, U.S. Congress passed Public Law 103-43, which directed the head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, to conduct the case-control study requested by Rep. Henry Waxman. This was an unusual piece of congressional law, which essentially dictated the type of study, the design, the population, and the hypothesis of the study. Under the specified experiment scheme, scientists merely analyzed the correlation between breast cancer and environmental toxin rather than identifying the cause of breast cancer. Other studies completed by the Long Island Breast Cancer Study Project, costing $30 million over nine years, showed no causal relation between environmental components, such as organochlorine compounds and electromagnetic fields, and breast cancer. [v] In their updated study in 2000, Wolff, Toniolo and colleagues conducted a follow-up analysis recognized, “our results do not support a relationship between DDE or PCB levels and breast cancer in a prospective cohort of New York City women.” In retrospect, it shows how even highly competent scientists can get carried away by one phenomenon and that the scientific community can react with insufficient skepticism.

A pdf version of this description is available

[i] Kabat, Geoffrey (2008). Hyping Health Risks: Environmental hazards in daily life and the science of epidemiology. New York City, NY: Columbia University Press. 47-73.

[ii] Wolff, M. S. Toniolo, P. G. Lee, E. W. Rivera, M. (1993), Blood Levels of Organochlorine Residues and Risk of Breast Cancer, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 85 (8).

[iii] Reynolds, T. (1993) Congress May Order Breast Cancer Study On Long Island
Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 85 (7).

[iv] Kabat, Geoffrey (2008). Hyping Health Risks: Environmental hazards in daily life and the science of epidemiology. New York City, NY: Columbia University Press. 47-73.

[v] Report on the Long Island Breast Cancer Study Project (LIBCP) (2004). Available here.

In June 2006, the City of Tampa, Florida developed forecasts for residential and non-residential square foot development within its Channel District. These forecasts were used as the basis for recommendations regarding the allocation of tax revenues for various infrastructural and public facilities projects. Did the audit by the City of Tampa follow proper forecasting methodology? A forecasting audit conducted by three Wharton students analyzed the projections. It suggested that many improvements are needed in the forecasting process, perhaps the major one being transparency.

Amar, V., Hsu, F., Shiah, H. (2010). Residential and non-residential development forecasts in the Channel District of Tampa, Florida: A public policy forecasting audit.

Date: The notion that electric power can cause cancer started in 1979 with a single epidemiological study conducted by Nancy Wertheimer (University of Colorado epidemiologist) and Ed Leeper (electrical engineer). The paper reported an association between wire configuration codes, a measure of residential electromagnetic field (EMF) exposure, and cancer, in this case childhood leukemia. [i]

Forecast of the impending disaster:
Wertheimer and Leeper claimed that children living near power lines in Denver neighborhood experienced a two or three fold increase in deaths from leukemia. A November 24 (2009) search indicates that Wertheimer & Leeper (1979) had 1,048 citations.

Forecasting method: The evidence presented in Wertheimer & Leeper (1979) could not establish a causal relationship between cancer and EMF. The forecast was based on mere statistical associations in a hypothetical, case-control study with a small sample size, in which subjects were divided into two groups (one with exposure to EMF and one without) and the results were compared.

Actions called for: In 1996, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) adopted an exposure limit in terms of electric and magnetic field strength and power density for transmitters operating at frequencies from 300 kHz to 100 GHz. The FCC also adopted limits that apply to certain portable transmitting devices such as hand-held cellular telephones. [ii] According to a World Health Organization (WHO) fact sheet, these regulations, along with other measures taken in response to public concerns over EMF, are costing the United States economy alone some $1 billion annually.[iii] In addition, the US government recommended "passive regulatory action," described as continued information and education of the public and encouraging power utilities to voluntarily reduce exposure to people where possible. International guidelines have been made on exposure limits for all EMF as well, developed by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP).

Endorsement of and challenges to the forecast: Many renowned scientists, such as Nobel Prize winner Dr. Robert O. Becker and Swedish scientist Dr. Lennard Tomenius, backed Wertheimer & Lepper’s claim, suggesting that there is an adverse biological effects of EMF on human health. The forecast has been heavily endorsed by the media. Concern over EMF exploded after Paul Brodeur, a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, wrote a series of articles supporting the association in June 1989. His articles had a catalytic effect on scientists, reporters, and concerned people throughout the world. [iv] The issue gained even more publicity in 1990 when alarming reports appeared in New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Business Week. ABC's Ted Koppel and CBS's Dan Rather both aired special segments supporting the claims about EMFs.

Outcomes of the conflict: Wertheimer and Leeper did not actually measure magnetic fields from power lines. Instead, they classified the homes according to their wiring code. The wiring code was then used as a surrogate for the power line magnetic field, which was unmeasured and unknown. This is a flaw in the study. Later studies actually measured the magnetic fields from power lines and found no consistent relationship between measured magnetic field and incidence of cancer.[v]

According to the 1996 WHO International EMF Project, there have been 25,000 articles published over the last 30 years about this topic, and there is still no evidence of the existence of any health consequences from exposure to weak EMF. The report concluded that there is no scientific link between EMF and the collection of symptoms reported by the public, such as headaches, anxiety, suicide, and depression. In response to the study conducted by Wertheimer and Leeper, WHO stated that even if EMF does have effect on cancer, it would be very small. [vi] In 1997, the National Cancer Institute produced the largest epidemiological study to date, which found no association between childhood leukemia and wiring codes or measured magnetic fields.[vii]

Finally, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) also concluded from a 5-year research that there is inadequate evidence to link EMF to various health effects, such as birth control.

A pdf version of this description is available here.

[i] Wertheimer N & Leeper E. (1979) Electrical wiring configurations and childhood cancer. American Journal of Epidemiology. 109(3): 273–284.

[ii] “Questions and Answers about Biological Effects and Potential Hazards of Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields,” Federal Communications Commission, OET Bulletin 56 (1996). Available here.

[iv] Paul Brodeur, Annals of Radiation, “The hazards of electromagnetic fields,” The New Yorker, June 12, 1989, p. 51.

[v] Savitz DA and others (1988). “Case-control study of childhood cancer and exposure to 60-Hz magnetic fields.” American Journal of Epidemiology 128, 21-38.

[vi] International Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) Study. The World Health Organization. Available here.

[vii] Linet MS and others (1997). “Residential exposure to magnetic fields and acute lymphoblastic leukemia in children.” New England Journal of Medicine. 337:1-7.