Environmental threats vs scares

I’d like to compile a list of political brouhahas (to use a technical term here) where one side presented a potential environmental or public health threat and the other side presented evidence that the threat was not well-founded.

I’d also like, if possible, to be able to label them as much as feasible (that is, as a factually answerable question) as things that turned out to be scares versus things that turned out to be legitimate threats.

For example, lead in the environment (as seen on the recent Cosmos episode). A scientist says lead is harmful and levels in the environment are greater than in the past; a scientist from the lead and gasoline industry refutes it. 20 years later something is done about it. Since then it’s obvious that environmental lead levels were attributable to the use of lead in products such as gasoline and paint, and meanwhile, its pretty clear that lead is nasty stuff for the body. So, this would turn out as “valid threat” and not “scare”.

For another example, cyclamates (while not nearly as much of a political brouhaha) pretty much turned out to be not much more harmful than other artificial sweeteners, despite the claims that they might cause cancer.

I’d like to assemble the list of candidates here, and would definitely appreciate cites.

I’d rather not debate “valid vs scare”, but do want cites to info that might lean one way or another. If, for a given subject, it turns out to be debatable, I’d like to know that. If it sparks a debate hopefully we can spin that off to a GD thread rather than continue it here, in the spirit of a GQ thread.

Let’s not discuss climate change. That’s already on my list.

Another is probably DDT. My understanding is that it’s sufficiently well documented not to be a scare, but it’s also not a simple issue. (For example, while DDT is terrible for the environment, it might be a good thing we did use so much of it before banning it, that malaria is nearly unknown in the US.) Please feel free to fight my ignorance on this matter.

The debate over nuclear power and its hazards is ongoing. It would be silly to call concerns about nuclear disasters unfounded, though it’s debatable whether current policy regarding nuclear energy is idea. That’s beside the point of my query.


Wikipedia, as usual, is a good starting place:

Also, a lot of these topics will be covered in entry-level environmental science/history textbooks, many of which are available for preview on Amazon. It would be an exhausting list to manually compile. You can pretty much guarantee controversy any time an environmental issue is caused by human industry.

The categorization of “threat” vs “scare” is more of a political issue than a scientific one, because the ultimate question asked in these situations is “Is that a big deal?” That’s a judgment call, not a scientifically answerable question. If we lose a ton of birds, is that a big deal? How many over how many years? If we increased cancer rates 10%, is that? What about 0.05%? It’s easy to document environmental impacts, but much harder to do a cost-benefit analysis that try to balance the impact versus human wants and needs.

There are still people who think the elimination of DDT was a bad idea. There are people who think nuclear power is a great idea. Once in a while, even on the Dope, you see people who say “Oh, we grew up with lead everywhere and it was no big deal. You’re all sissies today.” The sweeteners and cancer debate continues to this day, even though the science finds most of it harmless.

So how do you propose to categorize “threat vs scare” absent a social consensus after-the-fact?

I added several more issues to the Wikipedia category list (because I think that would be more useful in the long term than just listing them here). They are: Palm oil, beef hormone, the lead and DDT that you mentioned, conflict minerals, marine mammals and sonar, recycling benefits, organic food benefits, Fukushima, overfishing, dolphin killing, clean coal, cell phones and electromagnetic radiation, clearcutting, CFCs, Mono Lake and LA water, delta smelt (a fish whose ESA listing caused a many lost jobs), cap and trade (marketplace of greenhouse gases).

Those were issues that were/are at least somewhat controversial. Good luck sorting them into scares and threats.

Leaded gasoline.

Just saw this the other night on Cosmos.

Time Magazine Global Cooling


Thanks guys.

As I understand it, the global cooling thing was media hype, not scientists, and nobody was suggesting political action to thwart it. (I should look into it more to see if that’s correct.)

True, the “threat vs. scare” is value-laden. But I think that lead is a pretty clear case without any values: the claim was that the lead levels were natural, and it was pretty clearly shown not to be (after passing legislation restricting lead, environmental lead levels plummeted.) I believe there should be a number of other cases like this, where we can point to factual claims that turned out to be true or false.

In any case, I’ll find that google category very helpful, so thanks for pointing that out!

Since you added some, I’d probably find those especially interesting, so please feel free to mention the ones you added.

The “Alar Scare” should be at the top of the OP’s list.

There was a recent thread where evidence was cited to show that reduced lead levels may well have contributed to reduced violent crime rates.

In the UK - the Clean Air Act certainly reduced the incidence of deaths from respiratory disease. It has, however, created a plague of seagulls.

Oreskes & Conway go through a bunch of these in well-documented fashion (tons of cites) in Merchants of Doubt.


You mean the Wikipedia categories? If so, I did mention the ones I added: I listed them all in post #5.