Punctured Hot Air Balloon

By Michael Fumento

The Washington Times, July 25, 1996
Copyright 1996 the Washington Times

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When overwhelming scientific evidence shows that environmental regulators are wasting tons of money and needlessly scaring millions of people, you’d think there would come a point when they’d call it quits. Admit you were wrong, fellows, call it a day, and go home.

But no, that’s something the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just doesn’t do. Witness its reaction to yet the latest study finding that radon gas at household levels is harmless.

Appearing in the government’s own Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI), this study from Finland found that no matter how the researchers sliced the data, they could not find any link between household levels of radon and lung cancer of any type. The concluding line: "Our results suggest no important public health impact for indoor radon exposure."

As long ago as 1989, the late science and economics columnist Warren Brookes was dismantling the EPA’s radon policies, citing study after study that showed that persons with high household levels of exposure to the gas had either no higher levels or lung cancer or — in several cases — significantly lower levels.

For example, University of Pittsburgh radiation physicist Bernard Cohen has repeatedly analyzed the relationship between lung cancer and residential radon levels in over 400 U.S. counties. He found those with the most radon exposure had the least cancer. Physicist Ralph Lapp found much the same thing throughout high radon areas in New Jersey.

In recent years a major study of Missourians in the December 1994 JNCI and of Canadians in the August 1994 American Journal of Epidemiology also found no elevation of lung cancer in areas with high levels of household radon.

Likewise, populous areas with high lung cancer rates where radon levels have been studied have generally been found to have below average radon levels. This includes the New York City area, the San Francisco area, England, and China.

Several early studies of housing exposures, mostly done in Sweden, did seem to show a household radon risk. But as Dr. William J. Blot of the National Cancer Institute has observed, "Most of these investigations were based on small numbers of subjects" and "few incorporated actual measurements of radon in homes."

Despite all this, the EPA continues to insist that anywhere from seven to 30,000 Americans die of lung cancer each year from household radon. It continues to recommend that households be tested for the gas and that remedial measures be taken if the level is above a certain point. By at least one estimate, that would set the nation back a cool $45 billion.

But never mind all that, says Romona Trovato who heads the EPA radon monitoring division. "We are comfortable with the [current recommended remediation level] given that radon is a known carcinogen," she told reporters. "If we get new scientific conclusions, we’ll certainly take a look at it."

Yes — they’ll look at them and automatically reject them.

The stock answer that the EPA — or one of its few scientist collaborators on radon — gives with each negative study is that it just isn’t large enough to be definitive.

Indeed, says EPA ally Jonathan Samet of Johns Hopkins University, "none of the studies going on around the world is big enough to answer the question alone."

That’s funny, because when a report came out in 1994 that the EPA liked, linking passive smoking to lung cancer, the agency’s Steven Bayard said flatly, "This study shows environmental tobacco smoke is dangerous no matter where you are exposed to it." Rep. Henry Waxman (D.-Cal.) called it "further confirmation of the serious public threat caused by secondhand smoke."

Yet in contrast with the 2,500 Finns involved in the radon study, the passive smoking study involved all of 429 women. When the December 1994 JNCI study found no relationship between lung cancer and household radon, EPA radon division director David Rowson said it, too, was too small to be relied upon. Yet it involved 538 women with lung cancer and over 1,100 without.

Obviously to the EPA and the other radon alarmists, any negative study will always be too small. Note that Samet has already ruled out in advance the results of every single radon study being currently conducted.

Instead of looking at the actual radon-lung cancer data, the EPA prefers to sit tight with its master theory, called a linear, no-threshold extrapolation. This theory explicitly rejects the time-honored adage that "the dose makes the poison" and says that because a substance (whether a chemical or a gas) causes tumors at huge doses, it must do so in tiny ones as well.

In the case of radon, the agency has extrapolated from lung cancer rates in miners who have breathed in massive amounts of radon. Further, almost all of those with lung cancer also smoked.

The household radon studies are the best evidence that the no-threshold theory is bunk. If the agency accepts them, much of the regulatory structure it has built — involving not just radon but pesticides, air pollution and water pollution — will tumble like a house of cards.

Which is why EPA bureaucrats cannot, must not, ever accept those studies.

After all, if it did most of its employees would probably have to get more useful jobs. Like making slide rules.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on radon and on the EPA.