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Poison or West Nile? Why Would Anybody ask a Newspaper Guy?

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All right. A brief time-out? Before we all die of West Nile or shut down our endocrine systems with toxins, should we call in somebody who, unlike me or some editorial writer at the Morning News, actually knows something?

An editorial in The Dallas Morning News today more or less endorses aerial spraying of pesticides to combat West Nile disease, citing as the newspaper's main scientific basis an article which, as I have already reported, is very controversial, described by critics as an un-peer-reviewed piece of junk.

However. Astute commenters here have objected that the article I cited was an even less peer-reviewed, less scientific, bigger piece of junk than the one I was calling un-peer-whatever and so on. I looked back over my article. Hmmm. Could have a point. And, uh ... by the way. What are peers exactly?  

Today the News also cites a 2003 study in Virginia and North Carolina which they say proves spraying chemicals on people doesn't hurt anybody. Where to begin with that? Well, first, it makes a big difference which chemicals you spray, and the ones in the study are not what is being used here.

Secondly, if you look at that study closely you find that the studiers examined only a very small sample of people, and they failed to find out whether any of the subjects had been exposed to spraying.

What do I mean, "look at the study closely?" How the hell am I going to look at a study of environmental biochemical reactions closely, armed, as I am, with a pretty worn and faded bachelor's degree that included less science than I probably got watching Saturday kids' shows? It's probably time to reach for something more authoritative here than journalistic ships colliding in the night.

The stuff Dallas sprays is actually not a single chemical but a cocktail of chemicals. One element of that cocktail is a neurotoxin. Another is what's known as an endocrine disruptor that effectively shuts down or jumbles hormone production.

You won't get good answers on endocrine disruptors by simply trolling the easily available public sources. The EPA says unreassuringly, "there is strong evidence that chemical exposure [to endocrine disruptors] has been associated with adverse developmental and reproductive effects on fish and wildlife in particular locations. The relationship of human diseases of the endocrine system and exposure to environmental contaminants, however, is poorly understood and scientifically controversial ..."

But there is no reason to stop with that level of information, any more than we should be satisfied with journalistic opinionators on a subject of this importance. As close as UT Austin, for example, we have Andrea Gore and David Crews, nationally respected experts on chemical exposure in general and endocrine disruptors in particular.

A search for truth in this area is always fraught with peril for a number of reasons. Information is hugely distorted by the propaganda and advertising paid for by the chemical lobby but also by the desperate inexpert push-back of anti-chemistry ideologues.

It isn't necessarily safe to reach into the academic community. If you tap somebody from Texas A&M, you probably have a dude whose lake house was paid for with grants from chemical companies.

What Dallas needs to do is find some truly un-sold-out, smart, credentialed experts in this area. They may be shy about actually coming here to perform live for our cameras, but at least we should be able to get somebody to summarize their work.

West Nile is about to begin its natural cyclical seasonal decline. Maybe we will have some breathing space. We should use it to dig up facts.

On most stuff like this, people are vehement in inverse proportion to their expertise. We're never going to find experts whose opinions are completely noncontroversial, because the subject-matter is too hot for that, but we should be able to find sources of information who are qualified and respected in their fields.

Otherwise, if that sounds like too much work, the best course probably is just to do whatever I say. I know that's what seems to work around my house. (Couldn't resist saying that. Can I maybe stay at your house this weekend?)

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