In harm’s way: A response nixed by the Chronicle

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The following article, written by Haynes and Boone LLP attorneys James D. Braddock and Michael J. Mazzone, was submitted to the Houston Chronicle in response to the January series “In Harm’s Way.”

Braddock and Mazzone contacted the Chronicle during the series’ run to indicate their interest in submitting a response, submitting an initial draft for review then making a number of changes as requested by the Chronicle.

Ultimately, however, Chronicle editor Jeff Cohen (rather than editorial page editor James Howard Gibbons or Outlook editor David Langworthy) held publication of the article. Cohen said the attorneys would need to divulge a list of clients who have refinery and other operations in the area on which the series focused attention, in order to show readers that the writers were not objective. Though agreeing that transparency was a laudable goal, the attorneys felt publishing a list of their clients on such an article would be tantamount to saying they spoke for those clients on the matter — which was not the case.

At a presentation sponsored by the Houston Property Rights Association, Braddock and Mazzone noted that all of the scientific assertions in their op-ed were submitted to two scientists (a toxicologist and an air-monitoring expert, both with long experience in their fields) for review. The professional biographies of the authors are hyperlinked at the end of the op-ed. blogHOUSTON is pleased that Braddock and Mazzone have given permission to post their op-ed here.

A Response To “In Harm’s Way”

By James D. Braddock and Michael J. Mazzone

During the elections of 2000, some politicians drew from a narrow band of data to dub Houston as the country’s “smoggiest city,” a conclusion that probably surprised anyone who has flown into Los Angeles through that city’s dense layers of sky. More recently, a national magazine also used dubious statistics to tag Houston as America’s fattest city.

Last week, Houston’s hometown news source misused a similarly narrow (and unreliable) dataset to strongly suggest that emissions from the industries on the east side of town are giving their neighbors cancer.

The conclusions drawn in the Houston Chronicle series “In Harm’s Way” were based on flawed methodology, subjective criteria, significant omissions, misleading information, and a selective use of statistics to strike fear in those living around the refineries and chemical plants that so ably serve as villains these days.

The Chronicle did this without providing those citizens with adequate information regarding the inaccuracy and insignificance of those findings when compared to more reliable data regarding public health.

Dina Cappiello and other Chronicle reporters leave the impression that the greatest risk to health is the air pollutants emitted by area industries. But they ignore information from a state report cited in one of their own stories that referenced studies indicating cancer cases that might be due to environmental pollutants like those emitted by industry are dwarfed by the incidence of cancer attributable to everyday voluntary “lifestyle” choices most of us routinely make.

The EPA cancer risk factor used by the Chronicle appears to be objective, but in fact is based upon a series of highly subjective considerations. The government standards are set in control tests that extrapolate “safe levels” for humans based often only on animal tests.

For example, if the EPA observed an adverse health effect in a study of rats as a result of exposure to a certain level of a substance at high doses, the agency will apply “safety factors,” and determine a regulatory risk factor, always dramatically lower than the levels they observed creating an adverse reaction in rats. It is these low levels the Chronicle used to compare with their monitoring results.

Moreover, the risk factor was developed not as an actual predictor of cancer risk, but a common measure to allow comparison of risks to determine which of many exposures poses the greatest potential risk. The Chronicle misused the risk factors from the EPA and is needlessly scaring people out of their own homes.

There remains substantial disagreement among experts regarding whether typical exposures to air pollutants increases the risk of any cancer. In fact, toxicologists are studying a concept called hormesis that suggests, in some cases, exposure to low levels of a chemical may actually help prevent cancer or other diseases because the exposure works on the human body in the same manner as a medical vaccination to initiate and strengthen natural defense systems.

The Chronicle’s series clearly underplays the differences in expert opinion and attempts to cast doubt upon what most toxicologists would agree is more persuasive evidence of cancer risk — the actual amount of cancer that occurs.

The Chronicle stories barely mention Department of State Health Services studies that indicate there is no increased incidence of cancer in the areas where the newspaper performed its monitoring. When the studies are mentioned, the Chronicle attempts to discredit the actual cancer rates by claiming that a zip code is too broad of an area or that cancer has a long latency period. But most of the plants mentioned in the story have been around for more than a half century, and emissions during those early years were substantially greater than today, which means that even the higher emissions of the past have not been found to increase actual cancer incidence.

There is widespread agreement that “lifestyle choices,” including the foods we eat and the products we use, impose substantially greater risks than exposure to any industry generated pollutants. People voluntarily expose themselves to many of the compounds of concern. For example, benzene is often found in smoke from tobacco, fireplaces and barbeque grills in addition to gasoline, and benzene can also be found in other household products. The Chronicle even acknowledged that it had to instruct the citizens installing the Chronicle’s air monitors to place them in locations where they would not register smoke from barbecue grills or cigarettes.

Even before “In Harm’s Way,” a Jan. 13 article in the Chronicle reported on the analysis of Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s monitoring results, referencing a commission toxicologist’s memorandum on the results but ignoring the most significant statement regarding public health: “Lifestyle choices such as tobacco use and diet have been associated with 50-75% of cancer deaths while environmental pollution has been estimated to cause a relatively small percentage of cancers. The Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention estimates 2% of cancer deaths are attributable to environmental pollution (including water, soil, and air).”

This focus on the irrelevant is like writing multiple stories on a missed extra point in the first quarter of a football game the Houston Texans lost by 40 points.

In view of this and the actual studies of cancer in the areas around the plant, it is hard to understand why the Chronicle, relying upon its narrow and unreliable data, would suggest to readers that people are developing cancer because of industrial air emissions and that those emissions are far more significant than other factors that could lead to cancer formation.

There is no question, given the uncertainties of cancer formation, that industry should continue identifying methods to reduce emissions of potentially hazardous air pollutants. There also should be continued efforts to measure and monitor levels of air pollutants in areas of public exposure to help determine the progress that is being made and what additional actions would be appropriate.

But the issue of what impacts pollution may have on public health must be placed in the proper perspective that identifies all relevant factors and their significance.

Presumably, the Chronicle is interested in providing information to the community that enables citizens to be aware of health risks and to take action to minimize those risks. Unfortunately, “In Harm’s Way” misstated the current state of our understanding of the science and misled readers about the magnitude of risk of breathing the air in Houston and its surrounding towns. The crux of the Chronicle’s coverage — that people living near industrial plants are in greater danger of developing cancer because of exposure to concentrations of pollutants — doesn’t hold up when actual cancer rates in the area are considered.

Braddock, former general counsel of the Texas Air Control Board (now part of TCEQ), works as an environmental lawyer in the Austin office of Haynes and Boone LLP. Mazzone works as a trial lawyer who handles environmental and toxic tort cases in the Houston office of Haynes and Boone.

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