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The Toxic-Substance Double Standard

May 23, 1986|MYRON LEVIN | Times Staff Writer and Levin covers the environment for the San Fernando Valley edition of The Times

Dioxin, TCE, PCB. These are the names that fill school gyms and church halls and, now and then, evacuate a town.

But the prudent concern about toxics also has a blind side.

At a recent hearing on air pollution from a local factory, one resident wondered aloud if, along with disagreeable odors, cancer-causing benzene could be wafting from the stacks. The idea seemed to unnerve a friend, who pulled hard on her cigarette--drawing in benzene, hydrogen cyanide and other stuff that might cause panic if found in a ditch somewhere far from human contact.

As suggested by this incident, the concern about toxics seems to focus increasingly on hazards that are exotic and unpronounceable and clearly the fault of someone else. More commonplace dangers, even those that pose more risk and are susceptible to personal control--such as smoking or careless use of chemicals at home--are accepted more casually or even ignored.

This is not said in defense of industrial polluters and midnight dumpers, nor is it meant to trivialize regulatory efforts to hold health risks to a minimum. We regularly face small, toxic assaults--in our air, water and food--that should not be ignored.

Nor is it to overlook the important difference between risks that people assume voluntarily--by smoking, for example--and those that are imposed on them.

Society's Contradictions

Even so, the travail over toxics at times seems almost frivolous in light of the hazards that millions of people, and society as a whole, seem willing to abide.

The rogue's gallery of purportedly death-dealing compounds includes many whose health risks are yet unproven. Others that we know to be dangerous may be encountered only rarely. In this vein, it is important to remember that improper or illegal waste disposal does not necessarily result in significant human exposure. A toxic substance must be breathed, swallowed with food or water, or absorbed through the skin to hurt somebody.

For most people, toxic exposure from oozing dumps and belching factories, while not to be ignored, is quite small compared to the exposures received by millions of handymen and homemakers who use toxic solvents, caustic cleaners and wood preservatives in unventilated areas of the home or garage. Nor does it match the chemical fog unleashed by many weekend gardeners in their bid to annihilate every bug and weed.

Deadly Ingredients in Cigarettes

But these examples pale against that of cigarette smoke, which contains a wide spectrum of deadly ingredients that are deliberately drawn into the lungs--as well as unavoidably inhaled by bystanders.

Federal health officials say that smoking contributes to 30% of all cancer deaths and to more than 80% of deaths from lung cancer, which will kill about 125,000 Americans this year.

It's instructive to compare the killing power of cigarettes to that of asbestos, whose tragic toll on human health is well-documented.

According to some medical studies, asbestos workers have died of lung cancer at roughly five times the normal rate.

But the lung-cancer death rate among pack-a-day smokers is roughly 10 to a dozen times higher than average. Smokers of two or more packs a day die of lung cancer at 15 to 25 times the usual rate (asbestos workers who smoke have a lung cancer mortality rate a horrifying 50 to 90 times above average).

Of course, both cigarettes and asbestos cause diseases other than lung cancer. But the statistics suggest that someone facing the ghoulish choice between chronic asbestos exposure and regular smoking might do better choosing asbestos.

Yet many people are much less fearful of smoking, or of hanging around people who smoke, than they are of being exposed to low levels of substances that are "suspected" and "probable" carcinogens because it's uncertain what damage they do. Why such a toxics double standard?

Casual Acceptance of Familiar

It must result, in part, from fear of what one can barely pronounce and casual acceptance about what is familiar and can be bought at the corner store.

It may also result from a natural desire to focus on the misdeeds of industries and waste dumpers rather than on self-inflicted harm.

Governments aren't immune to this tendency, either. Los Angeles, for example, has achieved a wide reputation for its prosecution of businesses that violate environmental rules. Yet the city for years has poured hundreds of millions of gallons of inadequately treated sewage into Santa Monica Bay each day, contending that the ocean is big enough to handle it.

Government and the news media also have encouraged a kind of double-standard. The government regulates certain risks and ignores others. And the press focuses mainly on the ones that are regulated.

This writer is no exception. I have done many articles on trace toxics in the environment but virtually none about the biggest health hazard of them all. Over the years, I've sat at many kitchen tables, hearing anguished tales of chemical mayhem outside while the smoke curled up the walls.

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