Reporters often try to compress complex scientific issues into predictable narratives of good versus evil. Sometimes the facts justify the narrative, but oftentimes they don’t.
On March 29 the Los Angeles Times ran a story by staff writer Ralph Vartabedian titled “How Environmentalists Lost the Battle Over TCE.” TCE is trichloroethylene, a solvent long used for metal degreasing and other applications. It has been found all over the country in soils and ground water. The narrative is a classic version of good versus evil, with environmentalists clearly wearing the white hats.
Vartabedian summarizes the background of the issue as a conflict between public health protection and the Defense Department, which presumably has entirely contrary interests:
Following four years of study, senior EPA scientists came to an alarming conclusion: The solvent, trichloroethylene, or TCE, was as much as 40 times more likely to cause cancer than the EPA had previously believed.
The preliminary report in 2001 laid the groundwork for tough new standards to limit public exposure to TCE. Instead of triggering any action, however, the assessment set off a high-stakes battle between the EPA and Defense Department, which had more than 1,000 military properties nationwide polluted with TCE.
On the one hand, the activist community characterizes the Defense Department’s position as dilatory and anti-scientific (“critics say the defense establishment has manufactured unwarranted scientific doubt”). On the other hand, the Defense Department says it is “only striving to make smart decisions based on sound science and accuses the EPA of being unduly influenced by left-leaning scientists.” Buttressing the activist position is a quote from Boston University professor David Ozonoff, who says TCE “is a World Trade Center in slow motion. You would never notice it.” Vartabedian identifies Ozonoff as a “TCE expert,” but does not inform readers that he is a member of the activist community.
The companion quote is from Defense Department environmental official Alex Beehler. In the original story, Beehler says:
“We are all forgetting the facts on the table.”
In a subsequent editorial correction, the Times acknowledges that it misquoted Beehler, who apparently said something very different:
“We are all for getting the facts on the table.”
Vartabedian writes that in 2003 US EPA “lost control of the issue and its TCE assessment was cast aside” “after a prolonged challenge orchestrated by the Pentagon.” Vartabedian does not support this inference with many facts, however. Some facts not reported include the following:
In 1995,US EPA commissioned 16 “state of the science” papers. These papers were published in a May 2000 supplement to Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer reviewed scholarly journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), a federal agency.
In August 2001: US EPA disseminated a draft cancer risk assessment for external peer review. The draft risk assessment is said to rely on these state-of-the-science papers. However, in September 2001, six authors of these commissioned sent a letter to EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman detailing their objections to US EPA’s interpretation of their scientific work. They wrote:
Our concern arises because, throughout the reassessment process, in professional meetings and in publications, the agency has widely publicized its intent to rely on this set of reviews and analyses by outside experts, which were produced as a part of its trichloroethylene re-assessment process. The Synthesis and Characterization document itself states (p.xi) that “[i]ts conclusions draw from” these papers. Even the EPA document’s sole disclaimer (p.xii) that “[t]hese authors…were not asked for consensus on its overall conclusions” could be misread to imply a degree of endorsement, as it follows a listing of the state-of-the-science authors in the section labeled “Authors, Contributors, and Reviewers.” Overall, the impression seems to be given that the EPA has simply articulated and summarized a set of conclusions that emerged from the state-of-the-science reviews.In fact, the conclusions and findings in the Synthesis and Characterization document are based on EPA’s own decisions and its own interpretations of the scientific evidence. The document contains additional arguments, analytical procedures, and characterizations of evidence on scientific issues that were not drawn from the state-of-the-science papers, and the state-of-the-science authors did not participate in defining the findings or writing the EPA synthesis.
Indeed, we wish to make clear that there are a number of findings and conclusions about trichloroethylene in the EPA Synthesis and Characterization with which we as state-of-the-science paper authors do not agree and which we would not endorse. These include consequential matters such as the weight of evidence regarding TCE’s potential human carcinogenicity, the methods employed for characterizing potency for cancer and noncancer endpoints, and the importance of caveats and limitations regarding the strength of conclusions that can be drawn from available studies.
Thus, from the outset US EPA’s 2001 draft cancer risk assessment was scientifically controversial. Moreover, none of the six signatories of the letter to Administrator Whitman were employed by (or apparently under contract to) the Department of Defense. So the claim made by Times reporter Vartabedian–that US EPA’s risk assessment was “cast aside” “after a prolonged challenge orchestrated by the Pentagon”–is almost certainly false.
Vartabedian appears to have assumed that information he was provided by certain stakeholders in the TCE debate was accurate instead of performing his own research. This information apparently fit the reporter’s good-versus-evil narrative and made a compelling story. Unfortunately, for Los Angeles Times readers, the compelling story is false.