(Reprinted from HKCER Letters, Vol.34, September 1995)
Science, Not Science Fiction,
Should Govern Hong Kong Policy
Radon is a colorless, odorless radioactive gas that is slowly destroying the credibility of environmental agencies worldwide. The incomplete science and faulty risk assessments behind the radon scare are driving up prices for consumers around the globe. Americans are spending billions to combat this naturally occurring gas which, at levels found in homes, is almost certainly no health threat at all. Should Hong Kong join the U.S. in throwing good money after bad?
The Hong Kong government released The Hong Kong Environment: A Green Challenge For The Community in November 1993, sounding the bugle for brigades of bureaucrats to follow the lead of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This is the trumpet of uncertain science.
The U.S. EPA bases its radon regulations mainly on an extrapolation from the massive doses found to cause lung cancer in miners. They have also found a few studies that seem to indicate a risk at low levels to which some are exposed in their homes. Of those few studies, writes Dr. William J. Blot of the (U.S.) National Cancer Institute in the Institute's Journal, "most of these investigations were based on small numbers of subjects, however, and few incorporated actual measurements of radon in homes."
Conversely, most of the studies that have done such measurements have shown persons with relatively high levels of radon exposure in their homes have no higher risk than people who do not. Some of the studies, including one by Dr. Bernard Cohen, a University of Pittsburgh radiation physicist, have shown a significant correlation between household radon and a reduced risk of lung cancer.
Nonetheless, the Hong Kong government seems prepared to require building owners to make expensive changes to their structures in order to combat this invisible foe, radon. "A survey conducted in 1993 showed an average radon concentration in Hong Kong buildings of 98 Becquerels per cubic metre. This level is much lower than that found in surveys carried out in the U.K., Sweden, and the U.S.A. Nevertheless ... improvement is needed," according to Hong Kong government reports. (More than government rhetoric is at work -- Hong Kong taxpayers are about to fund a $1 million study of indoor air quality.)
Is radon an isolated example of junk science driving environmental policy? Unfortunately not. The same Hong Kong report, A Green Challenge for the Community, that targets radon as a serious public health threat also lists some other dubious health hazards--all borrowed from anxious officials at the U.S. EPA.
Sick Building Syndrome, which the government describes as "non-specific feelings of malaise, the onset of which is associated with the occupancy of certain modern buildings." This health threat is notoriously hard to document and, the government finds, tends "to disappear once the sufferer leaves the building." Many who have studied this phenomenon are convinced that it is usually psychosomatic in origin.
Second-hand Smoke. Hong Kong already has a comprehensive smoking ban in place, barring smoking in public transportation, cinemas, theaters, concert halls, schools, hospitals, and most government offices. The government is considering broadening the ban to include all workplace and public places where it is not already prohibited. As a basis for increasing the ban, the government cites "the findings of the recent United States Environmental Protection Agency report on environmental tobacco smoke."
The U.S. EPA stitched together a series of studies with questionable methodology called "meta-analysis." It essentially presumes that all of the studies are similar when, in fact, each was different from the next. About two-thirds of those studies concluded that there is no statistically significant relationship between exposure to second-hand smoke and lung cancer in lifelong non-smokers. One conducted in China actually showed a statistically significant decreased risk, which properly does not mean anything other than such studies are difficult to do correctly. On the basis of 11 American studies, the EPA found an increased risk of a mere 19 percent. But it is precisely because good studies are hard to do that last year when an American study showed that having an abortion gave a woman a 50 percent increased risk of breast cancer, both the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute said that increases that low (50 percent) probably do not mean anything. This though it was more than twice the increased risk the EPA associated with second-hand smoke.
U.S. EPA findings on second-hand smoke should not be the basis for government policy. In fact, very little of what the U.S. EPA has done recently should be a basis for policy. The EPA's own Expert Panel convened to review how well science is used at the agency--and issued some strong criticisms. Among the findings of EPA Scientific Review Panel: "EPA science is of uneven quality, and the Agency's policies and regulations are frequently perceived as lacking a strong scientific foundation." The panel warned EPA officials that "science should never be adjusted to fit policy, either consciously or unconsciously." An array of other U.S. reports also fault the EPA's science.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong has real environmental problems to clean up. What about making sure fish from the harbors are safe to eat? Or, how about ensuring that children can play at the beaches this summer and next? These--along with safe drinking water and clean vehicle emissions--are the issues that sorely need government attention. The United States has many excellent products to export to Hong Kong. But our environmental "crises" are not among them.
Mr. Michael Fumento is an attorney for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a world-renowned environmental journalist. He is the author of a widely acclaimed book, Science Under Siege (William Morrow & Co., 1993), which won the "Distinguished Science Journalist of 1993 Award" given by the American Council on Science and Health. Mr. Fumento visited the Hong Kong Centre for Economic Research and presented a lunch talk on "Environment and Technology: Partners or Adversaries?" with Dr. S. Fred Singer earlier this year.