Bill Moyers's Bad Chemistry

January 01, 2001  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Cancer

It’s too bad that "one-sided journalism" has become a trite term generally used to describe perceived media bias. Because sometimes, as with Bill Moyers’ recent PBS special bashing the chemical industry, it literally is one-sided.

Yes, in the course of the 90-minute long Trade Secrets, Moyers found he couldn’t squeeze in a single corporate representative. Instead, he stacked the deck with the usual anti-corporate suspect scientists who hide behind white jackets and glasses to assert without evidence that cancer and probably even hemorrhoids wouldn’t exist but for the chemical industry.

Bill Moyers tells only half of the story, and even that he gets wrong.

The fallacy is that because chemical use is on the rise, and some diseases are on the rise, chemicals caused the diseases.

Hmm . . . Each summer, ice cream consumption goes up along with heat stroke deaths. Therefore ice cream cause heat strokes?

Specifically, Moyers declared, "Half a century into the chemical revolution, there is a lot we don’t know about the tens of thousands of chemicals all around us.

"What we do know is that breast cancer has risen steadily over the last four decades [that] brain cancer among children is up by 26 per cent. We know testicular cancer among older teenage boys has almost doubled, that infertility among young adults is up, and so are learning disabilities in children."

It’s not just that he carefully picked and chose his ailments, but he’s even wrong on the ones he did choose.

Rates for breast cancer and testicular cancer leveled off in the early 1990s. Adjusted for age, total cancer incidence is dropping. All these data are freely available from the National Cancer Institute’s SEER program.

Childhood cancer, according to an American Cancer Society document using the latest data available, increased in the early 1970s, leveled off in 1991 and began declining in the mid-1990s.

Yes, diagnosis of childhood brain cancers has increased.

But according to a September 1998 Journal of the National Cancer Institute article, "The reported rise in the incidence of brain tumors in American children is most likely a result of better diagnosis and reporting rather than a true increase in cases . . ."

Meanwhile, rates for some cancers, such as those of the stomach and cervix, have plummeted. May we therefore conclude that man-made chemicals caused these drops?

What about infertility?

"Rates of infertility have remained constant during the past three decades (at 8 to 11 percent)," according to the New England Journal of Medicine of February 2, 1995, using data from the National Center for Health Statistics and the Princeton National Fertility Study.

There’s no evidence that learning disabilities are actually increasing, but rather that we’re turning things like inattentiveness into diseases (attention deficit disorder), and that as with childhood brain cancer, we’ve improved the diagnosis of real problems.

No doubt the chemical industry has done things it regrets over the last four decades or more. But it probably doesn’t regret its crucial role in making us the healthiest, wealthiest people in history.

If the best its detractors can do is to dust off and misinterpret 42-year-old memos, invent cancer statistics, and refuse to let the other side make an appearance, it seems there can’t be too many skeletons hiding in the chemical industry closet.