Thursday, August 03, 2006

Swimming Water Hysteria

Caught this on the news this morning: NRDC to sue EPA over beach water standards. I almost drove my car off the road. I was sure this was one of those stories that had to get worse the further I delved into it. I was right. (Keep in mind, I have worked in the health/environmental testing industry for most of my adult life, working for a lab which is involved in the testing of beach waters.)

The gist of the suit is that the EPA has not modernized swimming water standards, as they were supposed to in 2003. The only fact mentioned in the letter of intent to sue (other than the fact that the EPA is behind schedule) is that "there were nearly 20,000 beach closing and health advisory days across the country in 2004." According to the NRDC, "beach closings due to hazardous contamination are on the rise," but no evidence is given to support this claim.

The lonely libertarian investigated a bit more, finding this article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Are Water Tests Failing Us? In a not-so-surprising discrepancy, the NRDC complaint points out that improperly treated sewage and stormwater runoff are the primary culprits in these beach closings, while the Journal Sentinel piece mentions how sewage treatment has improved dramatically, and that many of these beach closings are due to contamination from non-human sources. This is an important distinction. Changing sewage treatment to ensure safe swimming water can be done. Solving contamination caused by natural rainwater runoff can be more difficult. Killing all the birds and animals surrounding a swimming area is probably not the best idea.

The point of the article, and the NRDC complaint is that the current state of swimming water testing poses some gigantic public health crisis. Little evidence is shown. In fact, much of the evidence is isn't evidence at all, it's not even anecdotal- it's just hypothetical:

Other animal waste also likely poses lower risks to humans, but there are risks nonetheless. Hamburgers tainted with a dangerous form of E. coli - different from the type tested for on beaches - have, for example, killed children.

As if e.coli 0157h7 was somehow going to be found in swimming water. You don't need to be a scientist to know that ground beef is very different from swimming water. I don't know why it's even brought up in the article.

Both the NRDC complaint and the article don't seem to understand the fact that testing for every single bacteria, virus, parasite, or chemical has individualized costs. Testing for every possible contaminant would cost thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. To be fair, the reason for the NRDC complaint is to force the EPA to conduct studies to determine what contaminants should concern us most. But why not pay to do its own studies, rather than giving money to lawyers and spending money on a lawsuit (along with having to wait years for the EPA to finish)?

It's not that the NRDC's legal claim is entirely baseless- apparently the EPA hasn't kept up with its responsibilities. But does this amount to a health crisis, or even rise to the level of something we ought to be concerned with? In other words, is this lawsuit even necessary? From what the NRDC tells us in its press release, I can't really tell. And I would hope an organization like the NRDC would have some solid information on which to base its claim, before making a public case and filing a lawsuit.

There's a reason I blog about these issues- for some reason we (as in the public in general) are perfectly happy to trust "experts" like the NRDC or the EPA when it comes to issues of health and environmental regulation. Yet when it comes to issues like foreign policy, we're far more likely to be skeptical of what George W. Bush (or anyone else who claims to be a foreign policy expert) tells us, even though most of us are no more experts in foreign policy than we are in health and environmental issues.

The point is that we should be as skeptical of public health and environmental claims as we are of other claims coming from either the government or other sorts of activist organizations. I'm constantly amazed that the same people who don't trust a word that comes out of George W. Bush's mouth blindly accept the word of the EPA- or groups like the NRDC- on blind faith.

Any environmental or public health issue should involve some discussion of the concept of risk, and some balancing of the costs and the benefits. If we wanted to spend the Iraq War budget on ensuring safe swimming water, we could do it, but most of us realize that would be excessive. Any regulation has costs, yet when it comes to environmental and health regulations, one rarely sees any discussion of costs and benefits from groups like the NRDC. And that's why I call them out- to make them back up their claims, and to make them tell us why their public policy ideas are worthwhile.

Updated 8/3/06 @ 11:03 PM : Just to show everyone that no, I'm not crazy, check out the Google news search to see the various news stories picking up the NRDC release- in paticular, note the number of local PIRG chapters refrencing the NRDC from a local standpoint.


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