Sunday, February 10, 2013

Lessons in green chemistry

“Green chemistry” has become the latest craze and now government agencies are sponsoring programs to teach it to kids in school. But what exactly is green chemistry? Some say it’s simply about making products safer, but it actually comes loaded with a political agenda that isn’t really about safety—it’s about control.

The ostensive goals of “green chemistry”—safer products—surely can be achieved without government, driven purely by market demand. In fact, industry performs its own version of green chemistry every time it develops new products because after all, businesses don’t succeed by poisoning their customers. They succeed by producing useful and safe products at affordable prices.

But the environmental activists want government-driven green chemistry, which is something completely different than market-driven green chemistry.

Green chemistry’s political formulation is most apparent in California where state bureaucrats are soon to release implementation regulations for the state’s Green Chemistry Initiative, a law passed back in 2009.

The regulations will establish a “chemicals of concern” list, including substances that fit within certain politically derived categories—not because existing uses pose significant risks. For example, hundreds of useful chemicals will be listed because massive doses produce tumors in rodents. Mere listing will demonize these chemicals even though existing consumer exposures are far too low to pose any real risk.

After all, it is the dose that makes the poison. Even broccoli, carrots, and other healthy foods cause tumors in rodents exposed to high doses. But no one would consider placing broccoli on a “concern list.”

According to California regulators, the agency will place about 1,200 chemicals on the concern list, sending signals to consumers, retailers, and manufacturers to avoid these substances. As a result, rather than maintain focus on product performance, affordability, safety, and consumer demand when designing products, manufacturers will be forced to serve the political preferences of regulators.

In the next phase, regulators will develop a “products of concern” list composed of products made with “chemicals of concern.” Woe to the entrepreneur who worked tirelessly to develop a product that ends up on this list. His or her life work may go up in smoke as the product is unfairly deemed dangerous.

For products that remain on the market even after the bad public relations, bureaucrats may call on manufacturers to study whether there are “safer” substitutes and then impose bans and other restrictions.

We should heed lessons that show why such arbitrary and unscientific regulation is more dangerous than the alleged risks it regulates. Consider regulators’ treatment of the chemical Bisphenol A. Manufacturers have safely used it to make clear, hard plastics and resins that have lined food cans for more than 60 years. Regulatory bodies around the world have determined that the benefits of using BPA outweigh any risks.

Still, regulators targeted BPA because environmental activists hyped risks and captured headlines. In 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned BPA baby bottles and sippy cups even though an FDA representative told the New York Times that “based on all the evidence, we continue to support its [BPA’s] safe use.” The ban came at the behest of industry, which has already removed these products from the marketplace because of bad public relations created by environmentalist hype.

The baby bottle ban is building pressure for bans on other BPA uses, such as BPA-based resins that line food containers, which help prevent the development of pathogens like E-coli. As a result, BPA resin bans may eventually translate into serious food-borne illnesses.

Still, some people argue that we should at least seek substitutes to “be on the safe side.” They forget that every product on the market prevailed because it was the best to perform the job at an acceptable price at the time. Politically driven substitutes by definition will always be inferior.

Banning safe, useful products simply wastes investment, discourages innovation, and diverts resources from useful enterprises into production of second, best substitutes.

Today’s modern governments will be no better at green product design than were the Soviets at economic planning. But both policies effectively deliver one thing: a recipe for stagnation.


Blowing Second-Hand Smoke

My university is considering a campus-wide smoking ban, justified in part by the claim that second hand smoke kills more than fifty thousand people a year. I am generally suspicious of claims of that sort, so have been trying to explore that one. It turns out that it is a misstatement of a claim in a 2005 report from the California EPA. In that report 50,000 is the midpoint of a range of possible values. In the justification for the proposed ban, it has been converted to a lower bound.

More interesting is the question of where the number comes from. Reading the 2005 report I was unable to answer that question. The number also appears in a Surgeon General's Report, but reading that it is reasonably clear that it is simply repeating the CA EPA figure, not offering an independent estimate.

How could such an estimate be made, given the obvious problems in arranging controlled experiments on the effect of potentially lethal pollutants? One way is by using natural experiments. There have been a number of studies which looked at a city that imposed a smoking ban, compared heart attack death rates after the ban with death rates in comparable cities, and reported a surprisingly rapid and large effect.

There is a problem with that approach. Heart attack deaths in a single city vary randomly—with or without smoking bans, they sometimes go up and sometimes go down. If you want to argue that second hand smoke causes a lot of heart attacks, all you have to do is to find one city where a ban was followed by a decline and report that result. Given the pressure for anti-smoking measures, there are incentives for academics to do so. And even if the researchers are honest and pick their city at random, the study may be more likely to be completed and published if it gets a striking result, especially one that fits what many people want to believe.

One can always find possible problems with studies of controversial issues, especially ones that produce results one does not want to believe, but in this case there is at least some evidence. A 2009 NBER study analyzed all of the data and concluded that there was no effect from smoking bans—cities where the ban was followed by a decline in heart attack deaths were about as common as cities where it was followed by a rise. If that result is correct, it strongly suggests that the conventional view is the result of cherry picking the data.

Which fits my suspicion of scientific "facts" asserted in political controversies, especially ones supported mostly by the fact that  authorities such as the Surgeon General's Report and the CA EPA say they are true. It also fits my more general suspicion of the too popular idea of Official Scientific Truth, to be established by consulting the Official Scientific Authorities rather than by looking at arguments and evidence.

Of course, I too have my biases—not with regard to smoking, since I'm a non-smoker, but with regard to Official Scientific Truth. Can any reader help correct them by pointing me at convincing evidence not merely that second hand smoke has some negative effect, which strikes me as a priori likely, but for the size of the effect? Or at a convincing critique of the NBER paper?


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