The New York Times has a well established reputation for spreading alarmism about chemicals. The “paper of record” takes the lead in promoting (to its seven or so fawning readers) the anti-science propaganda so prevalent in today’s media. The paper’s editors don’t even require these topics be covered by science writers; instead, one of the paper’s food writers and a foreign policy writer regularly use their columns to rant on issues they know nothing about.
An article that appeared in last week’s paper is no different. Reporter Ian Urbina has a reputation as a journalist who peddles alarmism (more on Urbina’s bad reputation here and here). According to one industry publication, Urbina also likes to scare people about energy production:
…Mr. Urbina’s previous works of fiction have tried to scare Pennsylvanians into believing their drinking water was full of radioactivity from drilling wastewater treated and released into PA waterways (proven to be false), and a weird assertion that the entire shale gas industry is a huge Ponzi scheme like a Bernie Madoff nightmare—that there really isn’t that much gas “down there” after all (MDN article here). Oh, Mr. Urbina’s big “inside” source for that story? An intern who worked on websites at the U.S. Energy Information Administration and who was being fed propaganda from an anti-drilling group. What has happened to the once high standards at the NYT?
This latest fiction tries to make the case that hydraulic fracturing really, honestly, truthfully does pollute underground water supplies after all (really). Mr. Urbina’s smoking gun is a single “documented” case by the EPA from a published report issued in 1987 about a well drilled in 1982 (discovered to be contaminated in 1984).
In fact, Urbina’s articles are so questionable, NYT Public Editor Arthur Brisbane went so far as to publicly criticize the writer saying his article “needed more convincing substantiation, more space for a reasoned explanation of the other side and more clarity about its focus.”
So, to be clear, according to one of the Times own well respected editors, Urina’s articles lack “substance,” a “reasoned explanation of counter views” and “clarity of focus.” Maybe Arthur Brisbane’s next article can focus on why this “reporter” has a job?
Urbina’s latest piece fits in well with this alarmist pattern. In the article “Think Those Chemicals Have Been Tested?” which ran in Saturday’s edition, Urbina explains that “many Americans assume that the chemicals in their shampoos, detergents and other consumer products have been thoroughly tested and proved to be safe.” He then adds ominously “this assumption is wrong” and explains that “unlike pharmaceuticals or pesticides, industrial chemicals do not have to be tested before they are put on the market. Under the law regulating chemicals, producers are only rarely required to provide the federal government with the information necessary to assess safety.”
Yet, after making this utterly absurd claim, Urbina goes on to cite the very law – the Toxic Substances Control Act (which is currently being updated by Congress) – established as a way to determine and ensure the safety of products that make it to the market. As Urbina explains, the TSCA process allows industry and regulatory agencies to work together to ensure safety:
Companies have to alert the Environmental Protection Agency before manufacturing or importing new chemicals. But then it is the E.P.A.’s job to review academic or industry data, or use computer modeling, to determine whether a new chemical poses risks. Companies are not required to provide any safety data when they notify the agency about a new chemical, and they rarely do it voluntarily, although the E.P.A. can later request data if it can show there is a potential risk. If the E.P.A. does not take steps to block the new chemical within 90 days or suspend review until a company provides any requested data, the chemical is by default given a green light.
So, while Urbina confirms that “companies have to alert the EPA,” when manufacturing a chemical, he designs the next sentence to make it sound like the agencies are given a massive burden by requiring them to “review academic or industry data, or use computer modeling to determine whether a new chemical poses a risk.”
What else does Urbina think people at Federal regulatory agencies do? Isn’t it their job to review data and determine risk? More importantly, what does Urbina suggest as an appropriate alternative? Should the industry just submit its own research to regulatory agencies? Maybe Urbina would prefer if the these regulatory agencies only used research conducted by independent researchers.
Let me explain how Urbina would react to those two suggestions. You see, Urbina is one of those journalists that will automatically dismiss any research coming from industry. He’ll blather on about how industry can’t be trusted to produce accurate data. He’ll advise that industry will always produce the data that supports their financial interests, making the data unreliable.
But Urbina won’t limit his criticism to industry data; he’ll say similar things about independent researchers, claiming they’ve been “bought by the industry.” He’ll attack their motivations or credentials (as has been done with other scientists who dare go against the environmental and anti-chemical activists).
In the article, Urbina goes on to complain that “Companies are not required to provide any safety data when they notify the agency about a new chemical,” as if he would ever trust industry safety data anyway? This is how cynical reporters like Urbina work: they complain that industry doesn’t do enough to test the safety of their products and then when industry releases data certifying the safety of their products, these same reporters squawk about how industry studies can’t be trusted.
After presenting this false outrage about companies not being required to provide safety data, Urbina seems unaware that he’s found the solution to the problem by adding that “the E.P.A. can later request data if it can show there is a potential risk.
So, to summerize Urbina's hysterical article: there really isn’t a problem.
Clearly, the Times will continue to allow Urbina to write this dreck and I’m sure he thinks he’s doing the world a fine service. I can almost see him tearing up as he tells his mom how great he feels about his latest journalistic masterpiece. Meanwhile, consumers can thank him for providing the reassurance that there really isn’t a problem after all.