Polluted science at Love Canel

"In the opinion of many experts, the [Love Canal] chromosome damage study ordered by the EPA has close to zero scientific significance." So concludes a review of this controversial issue by the journal Science.

It was published June 13, the same day that a scientific panel commissioned to review the chromosome study for the US Environmental Protection Agency sent the EPA a report that made the same point.

So much for the supposedly scientific findings that have caused such anguish among already distressed Love Canal residents as to force a hasty government decision to underwrite their evacuation. It is an unfortunate, but pointed, example of how vulnerable the public is to the propaganda of "advocacy science" -- the use of what purport to be scientific methods and findings for political purposes.

The chromosome study had been criticized since its announcement in late May as being a rushed job that neglected good scientific procedure. It was especially denounced for not using a control group -- that is, a group of people statistically comparable to the Love Canel residents but who have not been exposed to that particular environment. Now, however, even the assessment of what constitutes damaged chromosomes in the Love Canel tissue samples has been found unsatisfactory.

It would be easy to point a finger of guilt at Dante Picciano of the Biogenics Corporation, who carried out the chromosome study. But that would be unfair. He should, and does, bear the responsibility for his findings. But the EPA wanted the work done in such a hurry and at such a superficial level that he couldn't do it properly. According to Science, an EPA official has admitted that the study was intended only as a "small fishing expedition" to provide legal evidence, as opposed to scientific evidence, in a suit against Hooker Chemical Company for dumping toxic chemicals at Love Canel.

Despite these limitations, Picciano maintains he did find clear evidence of chromosome damage. The review panel disputes this. One wonders what kind of legal evidence such a scientifically questionable study could possibly provide.

In its zeal to prosecute what it considers a villain, the EPA was willing to distort scientific procedures. This typifies the kind of "advocacy science" which John Kemeny recently condemned in recounting his experience as chairman of the President's Commission on Three Mile Island. He said he was appalled to encounter people who, to support a cause, would "distort scientific judgment and state things with certainly that they could at most give a very small probability to."

Scientists should refuse to undertake such questionable assignments as the EPA's "small fishing expedition."

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