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Patterson and Kehoe, and the great lead debate

You know what is really impressing me about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos? That he doesn’t hesitate to draw connections between science and how we live our lives — there is an implicit understanding that science has become fundamental to how we see the universe. Last night’s episode was no exception. What started as an explanation for how we know the age of the earth (4.55 billion years), as established by the rigorous measurement of the ratio of lead to uranium in meteorites by Claire Patterson, became an exploration of health and the misuse of science, as personified by Robert Kehoe.

Patterson was an expert in analyzing trace elements; Kehoe was a doctor who was in the pocket of the petroleum industry. Patterson saw rising levels of lead in the environment as a consequence of its use as a fuel additive; Kehoe was getting paid to sow doubt. Patterson focused on the effects of environmental lead on human health; Kehoe was more concerned with the profit margins of industry. The campaigns for lead additives in fuel resemble the abuses of science used to promote cigarette smoking and to fight actions to curb greenhouse gases. I dug up a review from the 1990s by Jerome Nriagu, and it also reminded me of something else: the damned limited perspective of proper science by the non-scientists in the skeptics movement.

Here’s the first part of the abstract.

In 1925, Robert A. Kehoe enunciated a paradigm predicated upon categorical distinction between expectations and conjecture (“show me the data” mentality) from hard scientific facts on exposure outcomes. It led to a precedent-setting system of voluntary self-regulation by lead industry as a model for environmental control and implicitly signaled the level of industrial responsibility for lead pollution.

“Show me the data”? What could be wrong with that? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?

What that attitude fails to do, though, is to recognize degrees of uncertainty — that we don’t have absolute knowledge, but that all of our information comes with two measures: here’s what we’re pretty sure is true, and here’s a measure of variability or uncertainty to give you an idea of the bounds of our confidence. So Patterson measured the age of the earth at 4.55 billion, ±70 million years (that bound is now down to around 20 million years). The uninformed or the devious can choose to emphasize that uncertainty of 70! Million! Years!, which is a very long time, while the scientists are looking at the 4.55 billion part.

That is the Kehoe Paradigm: emphasize the noise in the data. Talk about nothing but the variability. Make it sound like the scientists are baffled by their own data, simply because they are aware of the limitations of their knowledge.

Cosmos was relatively gentle with Kehoe; he was clearly the villain of the story, but it didn’t make a big deal of the fact that he was a paid hack of the oil industry who was hiding the evidence in the name of profit. Well, not as big a deal as they could have, anyway — Kehoe was enabling world-wide environmental poisoning.

Here’s the rest of that abstract.

It combined a cascading uncertainty rule (there is always uncertainty to be found in a world of imperfect information) with a highly skewed cost-benefit concept (immediate benefits of tetraethyl lead additives must be weighed against possible future health hazards). Many studies were funded by the lead industry to develop a theoretical framework for the paradigm which served as a strong defensive strategy against lead critics. It resulted in an unfettered growth in automotive lead pollution to over 270,000 tons per year in the United States and 350,000 tons per year worldwide during the early 1970s. Clair Patterson is credited with being the first person to mount an effective challenge against the Kehoe paradigm, and with his success came an upsurge of activity and attention to the risks of environmental lead pollution on public health.

That should sound familiar: multiply uncertainty, and balance it with a biased cost-benefit analysis. How libertarian!

Maybe not all of you remember the 1960s-1970s, but I do: I remember the ads everywhere touting one brand of gasoline that put a “tiger in your tank!” I didn’t know at the time that the tiger was tetraethyl lead, and that a rather nasty environmental toxin, in addition to the carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, was pouring out of everyone’s exhaust pipes.

The heart of the Kehoe Paradigm was to first piously state that if it could be conclusively shown that tetraethyl lead was a public health danger, then of course the lead industry would stop, as the only rational and morally acceptable response. But then he would go on to argue that it wasn’t conclusive at all, yet — so the default response should be to allow industry to continue to profit until the consequences to public health were undeniable. And this neglect of responsibility was all neatly wrapped up in the claim that it was the “scientific” way of thinking — that somehow, science only deals with absolute truths and that you can’t draw scientific conclusions until every detail is knitted up with complete certainty.

The signals that this was all wrong should have been recognized early. Science is about a gradual convergence on a truth, and we make provisional statements about reality that are always subject to revision. If the preponderance of evidence leans one way (and that breathing tetraethyl lead was bad for humans was rather obvious), the onus is on dissenters to provide strong counter-evidence…not to natter on about what the scientists don’t know for sure. Need I point out that this is also familiar creationist strategy, that rather than actually providing a coherent theory and supporting body of evidence, they’d rather go on and on about our areas of uncertainty?

But also there was another obvious problem. Kehoe was bought and paid for.

Robert Kehoe and the lead industry were very closely entwined in more ways than just the theory and practice of occupational health protection — the lead industry built and equipped a laboratory for him, paid his salary (minus the $1.00 per year he received from the University of Cincinnati), and financed most of his research. The return for the symbiosis included an unprecedented control on research and knowledge about occupational and environmental lead hazards and the stifling of environmental pollution control programs in the United States for many decades.

I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know that this villain lived in prosperity and prestige to the ripe old age of 99, dying in 1992, after a lifetime spent making sure that Big Oil could freely poison all the children in the country.

Another approach of the Kehoe Paradigm was to emphasize “thresholds”. A little bit of poison is OK; it’s only when it reaches some particular threshold that it becomes bad for you, and as long as the industry doesn’t cross that line, it is doing you no harm. In the case of lead, Kehoe argued that the threshold was 100 µg/m3 — which is a hell of a lot of lead. It’s also not true that there is a “threshold”. I recall getting harangued by my old genetics professor, George Streisinger, who had been testifying for the Downwinders (people who had been exposed to fallout from nuclear tests), that there is no such thing as a threshold for radiation exposure — it’s a continuous sliding scale of increasing probability of damage with increasing dosage. But if you draw an arbitrary line, sanctify it with the label of science, and say anything below the line can’t hurt you…well, Science says it’s safe, so it’s fine. Unfortunately, the evidence doesn’t say any such thing.

Patterson really was a hero, and I was happy to see Cosmos give the man credit. He used evidence to fight against Kehoe; for instance, he did measurements (as shown on the program) to show that pre-industrial levels of lead were 0.0005 µg/m3, in contrast to the modern American levels of approximately 1µg/m3 — we were breathing in 2000 times as much lead now. To argue that the lead industry was not making a massive contribution of poison to the environment was raw nonsense.

He also found fault with the whole “threshold” idea. The clinical responses to acute lead poisoning were just an extreme on a continuum — he speculated that “below the then accepted threshold concentration there were some effects which clinically might be difficult or impossible to detect or ascribe to their real cause.”

But he also emphasized the problem of bias. “You can use the data to justify your purposes. If your purpose is to sell lead alkyls, then you look at these data one way. If your purpose is to guard public health, you will look at this data in another way, and you will reach different conclusions.” Ataxia, coma, convulsions, and death are easy to diagnose, so using those as markers for a threshold may be convenient, but it ignores the subtle neurological effects, which might be important, too. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that crime levels have been in decline since lead emissions were limited (this is another case of a purely correlational measure, but let’s not ignore it — we’ve removed a neurological poison from the atmosphere, and simultaneously see a shift in human behavior? Reasonable mechanism, measurable response, worth pursuing more).

Patterson testified before congress, as shown on Cosmos, and really chewed out industry and Kehoe for their misappropriation of science.

It is clear, from the history of development of the lead pollution problem in the United States that responsible and regulatory persons and organizations concerned in this matter have failed to distinguish between scientific activity and the utilization of observations for material purpose. [such utilization] is not science…it is the defense and promotion of industrial activity. This utilization is not done objectively. It is done subjectively. … It is not just a mistake for public health agencies to cooperate and collaborate with industries in investigating and deciding whether public health is endangered—it is a direct abrogation and violation of the duties and responsibilities of those public health organizations. In the past, these bodies have acted as though their own activities and those of lead industries in health matters were science, and they could be considered objectively in that sense.

Patterson eventually won on this one specific issue, and we’re no longer burning tons and tons of lead. I wish I could say he’d won on the broader principle, though, because he didn’t — the Kehoe Paradigm is still the standard pseudoscientific approach used by industry to justify great evils. For instance, CEI is arguing that we shouldn’t expand regulation of industrial chemicals just because of a little ol’ spill in West Virgina with a slew of half-truths…including the claim that MCHM has “low toxicity”. It’s the threshold argument again.

We’re still trying to unravel the tangle he made of science policy, though. Kehoe’s Paradigm lives on at various right-wing think tanks, for instance, the Heartland Institute, where the headline that greeted me when I just visited was Climate Change Reconsidered, which concludes that the human effect is likely to be small relative to natural variability, and whatever small warming is likely to occur will produce benefits as well as costs. Change climate change to environmental lead, and it could be straight from Kehoe, and is just as honest.

At least Cosmos is making an effort to show that good science matters, and matters everywhere in your life.


Nriagu JO (1998) Clair Patterson and Robert Kehoe’s paradigm of “show me the data” on environmental lead poisoning. Environ Res. 78(2):71-8.

Comments

  1. doublereed says

    Perhaps it isn’t surprising that crime levels have been in decline since lead emissions were limited (this is another case of a purely correlational measure, but let’s not ignore it — we’ve removed a neurological poison from the atmosphere, and simultaneously see a shift in human behavior? Reasonable mechanism, measurable response, worth pursuing more).

    It’s worth noting that the correlation is better than nearly all the other hypotheses out there.

    People often say that violence is caused by things like socioeconomic factors, but data-wise this is not convincing at all. We just had a massive recession, and violent crime has continued to drop. When it comes to violent crime, there’s lots of theories out there but nothing is really that convincing.

    Because of this, the correlation of lead to violent crime is shocking by how good it is.

  2. gussnarp says

    I love that he managed to nail both YECs and climate change deniers so smoothly in one story about one scientist and his work.

  3. FossilFishy (NOBODY, and proud of it!) says

    He also found fault with the whole “threshold” idea. The clinical responses to acute lead poisoning were just an extreme on a continuum — he speculated that “below the then accepted threshold concentration there were some effects which clinically might be difficult or impossible to detect or ascribe to their real cause.”

    Fucking hell. Look, I’m in no way educated enough in chemistry to make any authoritative claims regarding the toxicity of substances, but isn’t this the reasoning used by anti-flouride cranks and the like? Isn’t one of the maxims of chemistry: “The dose makes the poison.”? Perhaps lead is one of those substances that has no safe level. I sure hope so*, because otherwise the statement above is prime ammunition for the naturalistic fallacy assholes everywhere.

    *In a, fuck that’s awful, sorta way.

  4. says

    There are substances with threshold effects: ethanol, for instance. Low doses are handled by the liver quite well, so you don’t get strong behavioral responses. Once you hit a threshold (that varies per individual), you get the effects.

    But at the same time, the extra work done by the liver at low concentration could have long-term consequences on that organ, with no measurable behavioral effect.

    It’s a matter of being able to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. Radiation always has a possibility of doing genetic damage, and you get a higher level of it living in the Rocky Mountains than you do living in Minnesota. We live with it. Saying that there’s a threshold below which there is NO effect is simply a lie.

  5. says

    Kehoe’s Paradigm lives on at various right-wing think tanks

    It’s interesting because in risk analysis one weighs potential risks and controls against potential outcomes. The Kehoe Paradigm amounts to: “Unless there is 100% conclusive proof there is risk, we should assume there is no risk!” The risk analysis paradigm says “If there is a reasonable likelihood that the risk is real, we should factor it in to our outcomes for cost/benefit analysis.” Under a risk analysis paradigm, it would look like:
    If this stuff is toxic, it’s going to be affecting nearly the entire population, which is extreme risk – what is the reward of having it in the fuel? Not much? Well, then we’re done.”

    Risk assessment suffers too much from pseudoscience in my field, which makes it easy to blow off as a “garbage in, garbage out” exercise due to lack of quantifiables and quantifiable effects on outcomes. With public health and population demographics, that’s not a problem.

    It’s the risk assessment paradigm that leads us to reason this sort of thing:
    – Wearing seatbelts has been shown to reduce the likelihood I’ll die in any given crash by 85%
    – I recognize that I may still have a fatal crash if I’m wearing a seatbelt
    – I recognize that I may still survive a crash even if I’m not wearing a seatbelt
    – But I’m wearing my fucking seatbelt!

    It’s the Kehoe Paradim that would produce these results:
    – Wearing seatbelts has been shown to reduce the likelihood I’ll die in any given crash by 85%
    – 85% is not 100%, we should have 100% survivable crashes
    – I recognize that 100% survivable crashes is not going to happen
    – So I’m going to “withhold judgement” on seatbelts and hope I survive

  6. says

    I note that the petroleum industry still got its kicks:
    At first they charged more for the fuel with lead, as an additive (It was Esso, later Exxon that had the “put a tiger in your tank” ad campaign. As a kid I had one of the little tails you could attach to the fuel cap)
    Then they charged more for unleaded fuel.

    Heads, we win – tails, you lose.

  7. davidnangle says

    Neil is giving people, one week at a time, another tool to see the real issues of today. He shows the heroes and the villains, and their struggles, and you can see parallels where it counts. Kids will see the tactics of Team Evil and recognize them in their own lives.

    It’s screamingly liberal TV, dressed as soft-spoken, fascinating, beautiful stories.

  8. FossilFishy (NOBODY, and proud of it!) says

    Thanks PZ. Once again reality is a lot subtler than my understanding of it.

    There is one thing that confuses me though, what’s the difference between a long term consequence and a behavioural effect? Wouldn’t a consequence have to be demonstrated by an effect?

    Or is it a case where I’m misunderstanding those terms?* For instance, it occurs to me that behavioural effect might be a technical term for something immediately observable upon exposure to the toxin.

    *nigh on a certainty that.

  9. Travis Odom says

    This is an interesting perspective; I’m used to hearing about toxin levels in the context of anti-vaccine debates, where the risks are often absurdly over-emphasized by anti-vaxxers. I’m not used to hearing the alternate perspective taken seriously.

    Perhaps evaluating widespread environmental effects like automotive exhaust benefits more from a different approach to risk evaluation. Of course, as mentioned here, much of this is a matter of perspective, such as just how “conclusive” evidence must be before action is required.

    Certainly, a much lower threshold should be used when we’re considering substantial health effects like neurological damage than for more benign effects.

  10. colnago80 says

    Re Marcus Ranum @ #7

    Then they charged more for unleaded fuel.

    There’s a very good reason for that. TEL was used as an octane extender. To provide gasoline of the same octane without TEL requires that more extensive refining of oil has to be done and a smaller amount of gasoline is thence produced from every barrel. In other words, it costs more to produce gasoline of a certain octane rating without TEL then it does to produce it with TEL.

    There was a downside to removing TEL from gasoline. TEL provides a lubricant for the valve stem seals. It was found that, in order to operate without TEL, the seals had to be hardened. Older cars produced before lead was removed were subject to excess wear on the seals which degraded engine performance.

  11. petemoulton says

    “That is the Kehoe Paradigm: emphasize the noise in the data. Talk about nothing but the variability. Make it sound like the scientists are baffled by their own data, simply because they are aware of the limitations of their knowledge.”

    This isn’t limited to corporations which are more dedicated to their bottom lines than they are to having some actual, surviving potential customers either. It’s stock in trade at creationist operations like the disco toot too.

  12. Travis Odom says

    Also prices are often based more on demand than the cost of production. That’s why we still pay so much for eBooks even though their delivery is essentially free.

    It’s a little nuts when you think about how much you save by not producing a heavy block of wood and physically transporting it across the country.

  13. carlie says

    I really liked last night’s episode, minus the “and maybe he’s craaaazy” push in the animation. I actually did not know of the connection between finding the age of the earth and lead emission reduction, and my kids found it interesting too. I made sure to drill into them after that this is one way that basic research is a really good thing to support, because you never know when something coming out of basic research will turn out to have a strong application in something else. Plus, Patterson is a damned hero for going through that fight for so long.

  14. jamessweet says

    I see PZ already responded, but like FossilFishy I was a little uncomfortable with the categorical dismissal, without caveat, of this “threshold” idea. It’s true that “the dose makes the poison”, and from a public policy perspective, that translates into setting a “threshold” for harmful chemicals, even if the dose/response curve is perfectly linear.

    PZ’s response to FossilFishy generally covers it: It’s all about dealing with uncertainty and processing it in an honest way. But I’m still not strictly comfortable with the post itself. It gives a lot of room for, e.g., an anti-vaxxer to call you a hypocrite…

  15. Gregory Greenwood says

    In the UK we get the episodes a week later than you colonials Americans, so I haven’t seen this one yet, but I am greatly enjoying the series. As noted by davidnangle @ 9, Cosmos really does function as a top notch liberal, pro-science programme. Neil deGrasse Tyson has an excellent delivery, and the approach is calibrated to be understandable by as wide a crossection of society as possible without indulging in the perennial scourge of ‘dumbing down’. Each episode reinforces the point that we live in a scientific age, and that the tools that the scientific method offers us for understanding the world and the broader universe around us are vitally important not only with regard to the big questions but also in our everyday lives.

    One thing worries me slightly; Tyson is not by nature a firebrand or otherwise one of us (you know, an uncompromisingly shrill, nasty Gnu Atheist misanthrope who makes teh baby jeebus cry) and so he does it in a very nice way, but the fact remains that every week he treads on the toes of one powerful and influencial group or another by refusing to toe the usual party line. The creationists and the supporters of several major religious groups (the catholics foremost among them) already hate him and the show, as was to be expected, but this latest episode could also easily earn Cosmos enemies in the chemical and big oil industries. I just hope that they can’t muster enough money and influence between them to get the show pulled.

  16. says

    Colnago80 @#12: There’s a very good reason for that. TEL was used as an octane extender.

    Oh, right! I was just a kid and not paying attention to the engineering; I just remember the price went up when the lead went in and up when the lead went out and didn’t remember we had a whole generation of vehicles designed to run on higher octane fuels.

  17. garnetstar says

    It’s amazing to think that companies are fighting regulation. As a chemist, I can’t tell you how many once-common exposure practices, with so many chemicals, are now marveled at by chemists, that such exposures were ever done and considered to be OK.

    The dose does make the poison, in that there’s an area under which biological effects are considered small enough to be acceptable. But, any chemical that’s bioactive has bioactivity, and whether it’s beneficial at some doses, undesiredable activity still occurs. Cisplatin is one of the most effective chemotherapeutic agents, but also very toxic, and the toxic effects (sometimes permanent) are accepted in pursuit of the greater goal. But the acceptable dose for many (most) chemicals keeps moving lower and lower, as many have been recognized as carcinogens (now that more is known about the causes of cancer), and many *cumulative* effects have been discovered.

    The thing about heavy metals, such as lead, is that they aren’t quickly eliminated, and therefore the toxic effect of continuous small exposures grows and grows. Any fat-soluble chemical will also accumulate. I recall a Bill Moyers show in which he had his blood tested for industrial chemicals: he had 91 in his system. That’s about average.

    Looking into my crystal ball, I predict plastics and their precursors and by products, and pesticides will be next discovered to have lower and lower acceptable doses.

    I once read that we now say about the Middle Ages: “Of course they had plague, they threw their garbage into the streets!”, and that future generations will be saying of us “Of course they had cancer, they threw their chemicals into the environment!” To which I can only say, yes.

  18. Gregory Greenwood says

    doublereed @ 1;

    It’s worth noting that the correlation is better than nearly all the other hypotheses out there.

    People often say that violence is caused by things like socioeconomic factors, but data-wise this is not convincing at all. We just had a massive recession, and violent crime has continued to drop. When it comes to violent crime, there’s lots of theories out there but nothing is really that convincing.

    Because of this, the correlation of lead to violent crime is shocking by how good it is.

    It is a very interesting and probably important avenue of research, but it was perhaps inevitable that the Right would twist it to their own regressive ends – I heard on the news just yesterday that there are already figures within the UK Conservative Party who have seized on the research, and the reports of falling crime rates even during a recession, to claim that criminality is not significantly linked to privation, and so the efforts of Left leaning parties to try to use state funds to improve the quality of life of disadvantaged social groups are a waste of public monies.

    That is the Conservatives for you – they are perfectly fine with vast swathes of the populous living in a trap of crushing poverty and a total dearth of opportunity or social mobility from one generation to the next, just so long as this entirely preventable death-spiral of despair and wasted lives remains orderly. Indeed, they are not just OK with it, they see it as desireable, since the privation of the many serves to reinforce the privilege of the few, specifically the 1%ers who are the only constituency the Conservatives have ever really cared about.

    The corruption of science to promote social injustice is one of the ugliest (but, sadly, also most effective) strategems in the Right’s nasty bag of tricks.

  19. Infophile says

    On thresholds/response curves: The key question for any issue here is: Do the expected benefits outweigh the expected harms?

    For instance: Fluoride. Too much of it can lead to fluorosis, a discoloration and roughening of the teeth. At its worst, it makes teeth harder to clean, which can increase the incidence of cavities. In moderate amounts, it helps strengthen teeth and decrease the incidence of cavities. So what do we do? We look at the two response curves, and see where the expected minimum of cavities is. This has been well-studied, and it’s been found that about 3mg/day of fluoride is optimal for people of most ages. Given typical water consumption, this translates into about 1 ppm of fluoride in water, so this is the target of fluoridation (which many people don’t realize often includes lowering the fluoride content of water in regions where it’s naturally too high). Sure, if we raise fluoride, we’re increasing one risk factor, but when it’s low enough we’re decreasing another by even more. Scientifically, it’s a simple choice. It’s like saying, “We’ll accept a 1% chance of cavities from fluorosis if it decreases the chance of cavities from other causes by 5%.”

    Vaccines work similarly, although the calculation isn’t constant over time. For instance, the smallpox vaccine used to be obviously beneficial – there were risks to it, sure, but it was easily worth the benefit of not having to risk getting smallpox. But nowadays, with smallpox wiped out, the risk-benefit analysis tilts the other way: There are risks to taking the vaccine, but virtually no benefit to it, so no one gets it anymore.

  20. garnetstar says

    I should say, I like Paracelsus’ statement about dosage better than the modern “The dose makes the poson.” That suggests that there is some dose that has only beneficial effects.

    Paracelsus was more explicit: “All substances are poisons. There is no substance that is not a poison. The only difference between a poison and a remedy is the dose.”

    I.e., that beneficical and harmful effects happen simultaneously: no chemical has only beneficial effects.

  21. says

    But I’m still not strictly comfortable with the post itself. It gives a lot of room for, e.g., an anti-vaxxer to call you a hypocrite…

    Only if you live in a black-and-white world. Talk to any competent doctor, and they’ll tell you that of course there are risks with vaccination — small risks that are largely offset by the benefits. It’s unscientific to say that there are zero negative consequences associated with vaccines…again, it’s a continuum of probabilities, and there are degrees of uncertainty.

    That’s what I find strange. Are people so innumerate and unaware of probabilities? There is a real risk every time I step outside my house that I’ll get hit by a car. Everything we do is risky. Do we all hide in our bedrooms until the world is made perfectly safe? Or do we reduce danger as much as we can, and balance it with enjoying our life?

  22. Rob Grigjanis says

    Are people so innumerate and unaware of probabilities?

    In my experience, yes. See Monty Hall problem, The.

  23. says

    PZ @23:

    That’s what I find strange. Are people so innumerate and unaware of probabilities?

    I’ve had a few of my own tussles with anti-vaxxers, and I have to say yes. It’s despairingly common for there to be an anti-vaxxer rambling on about “complete safety” even as we point out the common, mundane task of driving a car has a non-zero chance of ending in a fatality. They just say they’ll never get into an accident because they’re safe drivers.

  24. Nick Gotts says

    I’ll take this opportunity to re-recommend Oreskes and Conway’s Merchants of Doubt, which covers a number of similar issues (but not lead, as it happens), and also the shift among American scientists from a practically even split between Republicans and Democrats to overwhelming support for the latter over the past half century – as epidemiology and environmental sciences have increasingly produced evidence that conflicts with corporate interests and “free market” ideology.

  25. John Horstman says

    @jamessweet #16: Or someone who isn’t convinced that the marginal benefit of GMO crops as presently used under the current patent system and in a capitalist market economy actually outweighs the potential and actual harm, like making an entire country’s crop of corn susceptible to a single parasite…

  26. scott says

    There was a lovely bit about the lead additive factories and their attitudes towards the workers in Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook:

    The additive was made in the “looney gas building,” the employee nickname for Standard Oil’s TEL processing plant. In the twelve months since the company began making the antiknock ingredient, plant laborers’ fear of the place had steadily increased. The men who worked there, in the clanking heat and drifting vapors, had become a little odd—moody, short-tempered, unable to sleep. They’d started getting lost on the familiar plant grounds, sometimes had trouble remembering their friends. And then in September 1924 the workers started collapsing, going into convulsions, babbling deliriously. By the end of October, thirty-two of the forty-nine TEL workers were in the hospital, and five had died.
    Standard Oil issued a cool response: “These men probably went insane because they worked too hard,” according to the building manager. And those who didn’t survive had merely worked themselves to death. Other than that, the company didn’t see a problem.

  27. says

    It’s the threshold argument again.

    Sadly, the “toxin” nuts can make this argument too, that, in effect, any level of their imagined toxin is a problem, so they are right, and we shouldn’t be defining thresholds, even while damn near “everything” has a threshold, including how much arsenic is deemed “safe”.

    The real problem is that, in most of these cases, like with the lead additives, the “threshold” is imaginary. While it might have been vaguely correct to say a certain level was “safe” for one car, it wasn’t for a million of them. One oil spill, or coal spill, etc. might be semi-OK, if its damn small, but not a huge one, or dozens of them, and so on. Most of the stuff the “toxin” crowd is always whining about is “individual” levels, not something that can spread from the person eating a cupcake to everyone else in the room, which makes is sane to talk about “thresholds”. If purely baking a cupcake with something in it, as part of the process, spread the toxin to everyone in the entire bloody building, then the “cumulative” effect on everyone, not just the guy eating one cupcake, would be a problem. And, that is the most serious problem with “both” arguments imho – the spills, pollution, etc. are all “cumulative”, “mass effect”, “large scale” situations, where “thresholds” are meaningless, because *everything it touches is effected”, while something like a food additive… unless your eating/drinking 500 times as much as is in fact “safe” probably won’t hurt you much, if at all, and **definitely** isn’t going to poison everyone else in the room, or the town, or the state, by the mere volume of things being sold with the claimed “toxin” in them. One side ignores this distinction from personally paranoia, and the other side ignores the distinction, in the direct opposite way, out of profit margin.

  28. opposablethumbs says

    Finally I understand that xkcd, chigau! :-)
    (how do you always find the xkcd you want?!? have you memorised every one?????)

  29. says

    Another factor in risk that I find so frustrating is what I call “sharks at the beach.” Many people tend to be terrified of unlikely but very dramatic dangers while ignoring everyday risks. The illustration I used behind that name is that such people seem disproportionately more worried that they’ll be attacked by sharks at the beach than the possibility they might get into a fatal accident while driving to the beach.

    I think there’s a similar “movie” factor in a lot of bad political decisions. I’ve seen wingnuts who want us to sink our civil rights and economy into Big Brother and the military so that we need never fear the comparatively rare threat of (specifically) Islamic terrorism. But they won’t lift a finger to fight more common threats to a citizen’s life like domestic gun violence or stochastic terrorism. Sometimes, I think it’s because Islamic terrorism is more “action movie-y” than a gun nut who snaps, kills a bunch of innocent people, and himself, abruptly ending the story with no winners.

  30. says

    Many people tend to be terrified of unlikely but very dramatic dangers while ignoring everyday risks

    Bruce Schneier likes to point out that we often base our fears on what we hear about in the news, which is weird, because it’s news-worthy which means unusual. I had a few friends who claimed to be afraid of bridges after the bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007 – in spite of the fact that bridges don’t collapse very often and the average daily automotive fatality rate in Minneapolis at that time was about 6/day. So the bridge collapse amounted to a single day when the average jumped a bit.

  31. chigau (違う) says

    opposablethumbs
    That particular xkcd I had bookmarked.
    But there is one for every occasion, you just have to look.

  32. glennbutler says

    Meanwhile you can go to any big box store and discover the glitzy packaging and wonderful benefits of spreading shredded, steel-belted tires across your landscapes. The shiny UV-coated packages claim to contain non-toxic and permanent mulches. Nevermind that microbes will eventually break down the rubber, leaching excess zinc and other heavy metals into the soil.

     

    It’s the same story, industry-funded studies married to marketing misinformation—more profit for the rubber barons, more loss for the environment and it’s future inhabitants, human and non-human alike.

  33. says

    FossilFishy #10

    There is one thing that confuses me though, what’s the difference between a long term consequence and a behavioural effect? Wouldn’t a consequence have to be demonstrated by an effect?

    You’re conflating two things here; cirrhosis, for instance isn’t a behavioural effect, but it’s definitely a measurable long term effect. So, there’s a threshold below which ethanol doesn’t have significant behavioral effects, but that doesn’t mean necessarily that that amount of ethanol taken consistently might have other metabolic effects without much (direct) impact on behavior.

  34. neuzelaar says

    I was also positively surprised that the Cosmos writers venture beyond pure science to show its influence on society. It was excellent, especially as this is on FOX.

    Neil Degrasse Tyson has traditionally laid low on religious issues, emphasizing the science angle. Yesterday, however, he said that the Roman festival of Saturnalia was shrewdly converted into Christmas. That’s a nice little nugget of doubt that he dropped. It was not really necessary to mention this, but it is so nice to see this hidden atheist agenda play out.

  35. twas brillig (stevem) says

    “behavioral effect”: euphemism for “intoxication” (i.e. “drunkenness”)?

    re Fluoridation:

    the reason to fluoride the water is NOT to fluoridate adult teeth; topical fluoride has little effect on strengthening tooth enamel. No, the important thing is for infants and children to have fluoride in their systems while growing their teeth so the fluoride is incorporated into the very molecular structure of the enamel. IIRC, that was one of the key findings; when studying the effects of the high-fluoride water community. Only those who grew up in the area benefited; adults who moved into the area were no different than others, elsewhere. But, yes, dosage is important; effective dose is inconsequential to adults, critically important for children.
    .
    Re “Monty Hall wager”:

    My favorite test of probability skills. Got into a big argument with a colleague (engineer), who settled on the myth that revealing the “goat” increased his odds from 1/3 to 1/2 and would stick with his original. I even tried the “pick a card from 52″ variation, and he stuck with, “At the final choice, you’re telling me I’m either ‘Right or Wrong’ = 50:50. QED”. My assessment of my friend went way down at that point.
    I imagined exploiting it through a “3 card Monte” con-game: “Pick one of these 3 cards.” Flip over one of the other cards showing it isn’t the winning card. “Now. I will let you change your choice to the other card, *BUT*, why would you (?), your chance of winning now, has just gone up from 1/3 to 50:50! Switch or Stay?” –::– Imagining that the common misknowledge of probability would be very profitable.

  36. says

    he said that the Roman festival of Saturnalia was shrewdly converted into Christmas. That’s a nice little nugget of doubt that he dropped. It was not really necessary to mention this, but it is so nice to see this hidden atheist agenda play out.

    The Ninjas in The War on Christmas!

  37. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    @PZ

    There are substances with threshold effects: ethanol, for instance. Low doses are handled by the liver quite well, so you don’t get strong behavioral responses. Once you hit a threshold (that varies per individual), you get the effects.

    But at the same time, the extra work done by the liver at low concentration could have long-term consequences on that organ, with no measurable behavioral effect.

    It’s a matter of being able to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. Radiation always has a possibility of doing genetic damage, and you get a higher level of it living in the Rocky Mountains than you do living in Minnesota. We live with it. Saying that there’s a threshold below which there is NO effect is simply a lie.

    This is borderline dishonest.

    You recognize that there is a threshold for alcohol. However, you seem to deny the possibility of a threshold for radiation. Maybe you do. Maybe you don’t. It’s hard to tell because of your weasel language (“[literally] NO effect”). Of course it’s wrong to say there’s literally no effect, but the question at hand is whether it’s linear, or whether there is a threshold at which lower exposures result in significantly less harm. Because of that seeming purposeful ambiguity, I’m willing to question your honesty.

    Let’s be clear. Have you actually looked at the data? Do you know there is zero compelling evidence in favor of radiation LNT for low dose rates? Do you know that there are interesting evidence against radiation LNT, such as the cancer rates in cities with highly elevated radiation background rates, such as Denver? Do you know that there are several known biological mechanisms which may be able to repair single breaks of DNA but fail with double breaks, which could be the basis of why LNT is bullshit?

    This sounds like a screed from an anti-vaccer who has decided that big pharma – in this case big nuclear – is in a conspiracy to kill you.

  38. dmgregory says

    I was a bit worried by the similarity to anti-vaxxer arguments too. I think the trouble may be in focusing on the structure of the argument rather than the details of the data supporting (or failing to support) the argument.

    Saying “it’s the threshold argument again” in itself isn’t conclusive, since “the dose makes the poison” is itself a threshold argument.

    I think the more crucial distinction is between arguing for a threshold (or against stricter cautionary restrictions on use) on the basis of a lack of conclusive evidence of severe risk within a particular range (like lead/tobacco industry advocates did), versus arguing on the basis of strong evidence for exceedingly low risk within a particular range (like for fluoride or vaccine ingredients).

    I think highlighting the difference in data between these cases would resolve the concerns that a few commenters have raised.

  39. says

    glennbutler @36:

    Meanwhile you can go to any big box store and discover the glitzy packaging and wonderful benefits of spreading shredded, steel-belted tires across your landscapes. The shiny UV-coated packages claim to contain non-toxic and permanent mulches. Nevermind that microbes will eventually break down the rubber, leaching excess zinc and other heavy metals into the soil.

    I came across the term “greenwashing” to describe deceptive environmentalist spin on products. I bumped into it while reading an article on “green” bars of soap with a hole in them. Supposedly they were more environmentally friendly because hotels wouldn’t waste the “center of the bar,” when they throw out used soap. The problem, of course, isn’t the center, it’s that the bars are usually too large for the hotel guests to use up during their short stay, and people wouldn’t look kindly on a bar some stranger has previously used.

    I think the more environmental solution would be something like a liquid soap dispenser (assuming there’s no significant difference between liquid and bar soap). The fact that a guest uses it doesn’t ‘contaminate’ it for other guests like using a bar of soap would. They just replace or top off the liquid soap when it gets low and clean the dispenser itself as part of housekeeping.

  40. Alexander says

    @Marcus Ranum:

    The Kehoe Paradigm amounts to: “Unless there is 100% conclusive proof there is risk, we should assume there is no risk!”

    Actually, my experience is that the “Kehoe skeptical paradigm” amounts to implying that because certain scientific facts (thermodynamics, plate tectonics, Newtonian physics) are presented in a “proven beyond a shadow of a doubt” manner, that all scientific research must hold to the same standard. That, of course, is Penn & Teller-grade bullshit on two levels. First, of course, is the direct idea that all fact statements and measurements should be held to the same criteria of absolute proof—which leads to the “assume no risk” attitude you described. However, the second error is far more subtle: the idea that science ever proves anything. It’s a dangerously common layperson mistake, because the scientific method is a process of disproof.

    Technically, thermodynamics has never been proven: all other contenders (so far) have been disproven.

    Technically, Newtonian physics wasn’t proven: the other contenders were disproven, and now (with Einstein’s relativity) even Newton has been disproven.

    Kehoe’s method preys upon the ignorance of the masses, and IMO the science communicators of the world are doing a very poor job of countering it.

  41. Bruce Keeler says

    It’s worth pointing out that the US led the world in the switch to unleaded. Britain, for example, didn’t even start the switch until about 1990, at which point leaded gas was pretty much gone from America.

    Imagine if the America of four decades ago had the same attitude to the environment as it does today. We’d still be breathing that shit.

  42. David Marjanović says

    The only difference between a poison and a remedy is the dose.

    No, it’s “the dose alone makes that a thing is not a poison”.

    Alle ding sind gifft / und nichts ist ohn gifft / allein die dosis macht das ein ding kein gifft ist

  43. cartomancer says

    As an ancient historian / medievalist I rather liked the implied comparison the programme drew between the Roman lead industry and the 20th century global petroleum industry – specifically that the people who suffered the most didn’t matter, and were considered largely expendable by the ones making the profits. We like to think that our societies have moved on from those impossibly barbaric slave-owning societies of the past, but there is still rather too much similarity to be entirely comfortable with.

    It came up in my mind earlier today, when I was reading an article about Donald Trump – who I didn’t, hitherto, know very much about – and couldn’t help but feel that he was basically Marcus Licinius Crassus with a bad hairdo.

  44. says

    The thing about heavy metals, such as lead, is that they aren’t quickly eliminated, and therefore the toxic effect of continuous small exposures grows and grows. Any fat-soluble chemical will also accumulate.

    One of the ways that shills for the industry lied was to cite “studies” which showed minute traces of lead in hair and finger-nail samples. Because of its persistence in the body only blood tests will reliably tell you if you have dangerous levels of lead in your body. They knew this.

    In the book A Short History of Nearly Everything Bill Bryson wrote a chapter called “Getting the Lead Out,” in which he recounts the horrors of leaded gasoline. Prometheans in the Lab by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne is another good source. Dozens of employees at production facilities for leaded gasoline died or went irreversibly insane.

  45. AstrySol says

    I would agree with FossilFishy #10 and EnlightenmentLiberal #41 that categorically rejecting the concept of threshold is wrong, but at the other extreme. Thresholds are established for practical purposes, which I guess can be translated into “if we control some stuff below certain threshold, the risk associated with it will be much lower than the benefit”. Even things like radiation can have a threshold (e.g. background radiation level, level in flights, level near coal plants, etc, or some calculated level based on those things), and a non-threshold approach will more likely find companion among anti-vaxxers, anti-GMOers or alike.

    IMHO, the proper way to refute Kehoe’s method is not saying “there is no such thing as a threshold”, but should be “your threshold is too high and carries too much risk (which is already proven by such and such and/or can be scientifically inferred from such and such) than the (public, overall) benefit”. And they should be allowed to counter the argument by proving that the threshold is reasonable with better evidences.

    My guess is in the lead case (haven’t watched Cosmos yet and will check it on Hulu soon), Kehoe didn’t have any better evidences.

  46. Menyambal says

    I read an article on lead in gasoline, a decade or so back, perhaps in an aviation magazine.

    It was very clear that the gasoline people had an alternative to lead when they started using it, and a fair idea that it was a bad thing. They were pressured by the lead industry, and mislead by the tame scientists. It was slightly cheaper to use lead, and of course the lead people made money, but there was an alternative present, and some of the hazards of lead were known.

    So it wasn’t like they started innocent, and just couldn’t quit.

    The article also mentioned that a drum of the tetraethyl lead was quite heavy.

    Fortunately, it didn’t take much of the stuff to get the needed effect. The guy that was demonstrating it early on would set up an engine using lead-free gasoline to knock and rattle, then borrow a gentleman’s tie, put just a drop of TEL on the tie, hold it up to the air intake, and the vapor was enough to cause the engine to run right.

    Knock, for those of the artistic side, is when an engine runs so hot and fast that the gasoline starts going off without waiting for the spark plug. It kinda tries to make the engine go backward, and is noisy and damaging. The tetraethyl lead is actually a combustion inhibitor. It makes the gasoline less prone to burn, so the engine can be make to run hot and fast, which is more efficient, without knock and ping.

    Or something like that. It has been years.

  47. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    @AstrySol
    That’s just recognizing we do cost-benefit analysis whether there is a threshold or not. I am definitely for that.

    As a separate point, LNT (the linear no threshold model) of radiation poisoning is bullcrap. It serves only to keep nuclear power down by appealing to fearmongering and ignorance.

  48. AstrySol says

    @EnlightenmentLiberal
    I agree. And also I think a standard without any threshold is non-enforceable. Even now, when TEL has been banned, EPA still use a threshold for lead in gasoline: “EPA limits the amount of lead in unleaded gasoline to 0.05 grams of lead per gallon of gasoline (0.05 g/gal).” http://www.epa.gov/superfund/lead/health.htm . So maybe (I’m not exactly sure how legal stuff work here, though) technically oil companies can still use TEL in gasoline at extremely tiny amount so that the resulting lead amount is below 0.05g/gal, but that may appear to be not beneficial even for them.

  49. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    And yes, it’s nice and convenient and practical for legislation and enforcement to have simple identifiable unambiguous limits for poisonous and toxic substances.

    Which is still a different question of whether the risks of negative health effects of ionizing radiation are linear with respect to dose at all dose rates. That model, LNT, is simply false. We should recognize this, and recognize what is actually going on, in order to better inform our judgment process when we set a legal limit – what you call a (legal) threshold.

  50. unclefrogy says

    all my life the arguments against tobaco, lead, climate change denial, chemicals and their possible harmful effects have mostly come from the more liberal of the population. The arguments are not left wing type so much as a more cautious conservative approach to the issues are all most always opposed by the conservative portion of the population it seems very contradictory.
    uncle frogy

  51. JAL: Snark, Sarcasm & Bitterness says

    50
    Menyambal

    Knock, for those of the artistic side,

    That’s a real shitty choice of words. You couldn’t just say “for those that don’t know”?

  52. AstrySol says

    EnlightenmentLiberal

    We should recognize this, and recognize what is actually going on, in order to better inform our judgment process when we set a legal limit – what you call a (legal) threshold.

    Second that. Legal thresholds should be based on real evidences, or models backed up by them. Whether the models are some threshold model or LNT, we need to know to some extent that how big the risk can be (and also how risky the alternatives can be, as in the case of nuclear power with coal as one of the alternatives) to make the cost-effect analysis and set up a practical threshold.

    To say “there is a threshold for X to be completely risk-free” may be wrong (well, at least, very hard to prove). But “there is a threshold for X, under which the risk is acceptable/appears insignificant to existing risks/is lower than the best alternative we have/…” is quite reasonable.

  53. jdmuys says

    I hear a very similar line of arguments to ban (or severely limit), radiowaves such as those from cell phones. Some people here (I live in France) claim they are “electrosensitive” and suffer from radiowaves (cell phone, wifi, whatever): they get headaches, can’t sleep… Note that there is little or no claim that they cause cancer. They also quote some scientific work (eg on chicken eggs) which supposedly prove that radiowaves do have a biological effect (which is cherry picking at the very least).

    This post tends to support their claim, which I think is BS.

    What would a reasonable way to argue here?

  54. Anri says

    What I find surprising is that we haven’t had any libertarians pop in to tell us how an Unfettered Free Market System would have solved the problem with lead in the gas.

    …no, wait, that’s not surprising at all.

    (I actually know someone who claims to have a source for leaded gas and to use it preferentially in their motorcycle engine. “Um, if you say so,” is about the only thing I can think to say to this.)

  55. playonwords says

    Surely one of the problems with saying that there is a threshold for lead poisoning it that lead, like other heavy metals, tends to accumulate in living tissue.

    As an aside since the implication of lead as a possible trigger for anti-social behaviours (such as violence) I have wondered about the role of lead plumbing the bad reputation of certain communities.

    In the UK examples might include Glasgow, Liverpool, East London, Solihull, Camborne have all been long been associated with a criminal culture and IIRC lead plumbing was still being removed from the tenements, slums and 1950s social housing well into the 1990s.

  56. vaiyt says

    Libertarians have trouble dealing with the fact that deliberately misinforming the public is an effective business strategy.

  57. gillt says

    This article touches on some of the issues in this post

    First, when researchers draw conclusions about policy-relevant matters, they have to make value judgments about the appropriate standards of evidence to use. For example, evidence from animal studies and three phases of clinical trials is usually necessary to approve a drug for human use, while evidence from animal studies might be sufficient to show that an industrial chemical poses a potential threat to human health and ought to be regulated. Determining how much evidence should be used when setting policy depends on the impact on public health, society and the environment, as well as the ethical and practical dimensions of the research needed to generate the evidence. For example, even in the absence of certainty about human health effects, it might be advisable to eliminate bisphenol A (BPA) in baby products or phthalates in toys if their potential health effects are serious and alternatives are available

    The following paragraph mentioning gender biases toward chemical toxicity seems way out in left field though…

    http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/2014/apr/opinion-scientist-transparency

  58. Menyambal says

    Anri, aviation gasoline still has lead in it as an octane booster, and can be used in high-performance car engines. The kids around here used to go down to the airport to buy it. I dunno who sold it to them.

    Note: Jet fuel does not contain lead. Avgas is only needed for some older piston-engined planes. Some new planes run on car gasoline.

    A few years back, we had a tank of automobile gasoline set up to fuel the planes at a small airfield. We talked about selling it to the kids with hot cars, as they would think it was aviation gasoline.

  59. JAL: Snark, Sarcasm & Bitterness says

    57
    Menyambal

    JAL, those were indeed shitty words on my part. I apologize sincerely.

    Thank you.

  60. says

    Do you know that there are several known biological mechanisms which may be able to repair single breaks of DNA but fail with double breaks, which could be the basis of why LNT is bullshit?

    Yeah, I would think this would have to be a prerequisite for life. Its going to happen, so you need some way to either have backup copies (which involves extra energy use), or repair the damage, when small events happen, compared to big ones. To me this is a, “No Duh!”. Its kind of like the thing with all the anti-oxidant silliness. I had the thought that what is happening there is a conflict between two competing error correction mechanisms. One mechanism is the older pre-multicellular one, which tries to repair damage, and streamline the code, so that you reduce, or eliminate unnecessary duplications, and auto-correct as many errors as possible. Stresses that “require” this, such as total lack of anti-oxidants at all (such as when they are intentionally edited out of the gene for experiment) would amp up this mechanism, to nearly where it was when the cells where all unicellular, and couldn’t afford extra baggage lying around, some of it broken. The other mechanism is a mix is sequestering bad copies, allowing for multiple copies to be operating at the same time (within reason), and allowing for a sort of “close enough” error correction.

    Basically, the latter would like language recognition. You can type I ❤ U, I Luv U, I love you, and any number of other variations and they are “interpreted” the same, even though they are totally different patterns. The single cell organisms, at least most of them, would “only” allow the original “I Love You” version, *period*, or maybe 1-2 other variations, not a dozen of them. This is a sloppy error correction, which “allows” for more breaks/errors to creep in, while retaining function. So, presuming this is what happens in the case of taking a lot of extra anti-oxidants, for example, it would, presumably, ramp up, or otherwise increase expression of the sloppy, less precise, “close enough for this cell’s government”, type processes, while drastically reducing the effects of the much more precise, and careful, “Edit out the errors, and keep things from breaking”, system. Reduce intake of them.. and you mostly don’t get much effect, since the cells themselves are already making ones of their own, but, to some extent, the actually, “Repair it, don’t just ignore it.”, mechanism will take more of role in keeping things working. And, we know this sort of ramping up and down of “that” mechanism happens, already, in single cell organisms, under stress, where the stresses actually “tune” it to be sloppier, and let more errors through, thus making new novel variations more likely to happen.

    The point? Well, it means that something can be both a poison, and a stress factor, biologically. How much of it there is defines when its a poison. Below that level, it may have biological effects, but it acts a a stresser, which may actually cause certain processes to change, but not necessarily in a way that would be negative. For example, removal of all anti-oxidants (including those made by the cells themselves), in experiment seems to increase life span, but.. my guess would be that this would have the effect of drastically reducing genetic variation in the same process, since its been hypothesized, and it seems to me to be reasonable, that it amplifies repair functions, while de-emphazising those processes that “allow for” variation. Its likely that something like lower levels of radiation is doing something similar. So, yes, there may be “thresholds”, in a sense, but those are going to be things where the total absence of the stress factor has one result, and the presence of it has another, up to the point where the stress exceeds the capacity of the cellular mechanisms to cope with it.

    This seems a very sensible way for things to work. Unlike the hyper idiocy of the, “We watched Dr. Ooz, and he said X is bad, so lets avoid it at all costs.”, type logic of the extreme, “Oh, my zod! Its a toxin!”, crowd. It just makes no sense that cells wouldn’t develop ways to deal with such things, and that “some” part of their own function, including how fast, or even if, they evolve new characteristics, wouldn’t be tied to “precisely” this sort of low level interference, with, in some cases, beneficial results, instead of fatal ones, within “certain ranges”.

  61. Anri says

    Menyambal @ 63:

    Ah! Thank you, that was the jog I needed to recall the context – his source is apparently associated with a local racetrack of some sort.

    I didn’t know that bit about aircraft, though – thanks!