Readers fishing for perspective

Post wire story left out important facts about low cancer risk of farm salmon

by David Kopel

Aug. 16, 2003

Reading the newspaper can be hazardous to your health - especially if you're overly credulous about food phobia stories.

"Study: PCB levels too high in salmon," was the headline on a Denver Post article (July 30) reprinting a story from The Washington Post. The article was based on a new report from the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C., lobby. The EWG bought 10 salmon in grocery stores and tested them for PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). Seven of the salmon had levels of PCBs that were higher than in wild salmon.

The article also included the obligatory denials from a salmon farming group.

Unfortunately, the Denver Post version cut the last three paragraphs of The Washington Post's article, which made it difficult to understand the policy that the EWG was trying to promote: The group wants the Federal Drug Administration to lower the "safe" PCB limits for farmed salmon to the 500 times more stringent limit the FDA has for wild salmon. In such a scenario, the FDA would then advise people to eat farmed salmon only once a month.

But even with the full text of the original article, there still was not enough information for consumers to make an informed decision about whether they should cut back on salmon. Regarding the dangers of PCBs, the article noted that PCBs "have been banned in the United States since the late 1970s." But there's more to the story.

Dr. Renate Kimbrough was the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientist who conducted a study that found that laboratory rats force-fed gigantic amounts of PCBs get liver cancer. The Kimbrough rat study led directly to the 1976 Congressional ban on PCBs.

In a pair of articles published in 1999 and 2003 in the Journal of Occupational and Scientific Medicine, Kimbrough and her colleagues studied 7,075 workers at General Electric factories who had many years of occupational exposure to PCBs. (PCBs were used as electrical insulators and saved many lives by preventing fires much better than did earlier types of insulators.) While the average American has PCB blood levels of about 4 to 8 parts per billion, some of the GE workers had PCB levels of thousands of ppb.

Kimbrough found "strong evidence that even long-term human exposure to PCBs at higher levels than are found in the environment is not related to an increase in deaths from cancer or any other diseases."

So you could eat farm salmon for every meal for the rest of your life, and you'd still have lower PCB levels than some of the GE workers for whom no mortality effects were found.

On the other hand, if the Environmental Working Group is right, then there are about 10 million Americans who like to eat farm-raised salmon, and who are therefore increasing their lifetime risk of getting cancer by 1 in 100,000.

Even if you never eat salmon, the lifetime risk of dying from cancer is about 23,000 in 100,000, as The Seattle Times pointed out in a July 31 editorial blasting the EWG study. The EWG study (available on the group's Web site) did fully disclose the 1 in 100,000 figure, but the newspaper articles failed to report this crucial fact about the magnitude of the risk involved.

Kudos to the News and the Post for great coverage of The International golf tournament at Castle Pines. Both papers did a fine job with the basics of daily results and player biographies and also provided insightful perspective pieces - such as how professional and amateur golf is being affected by the ever-increasing distance of power drives off the tee.

It might be noted, though, that the News golf experts (Aug. 4) both picked 10 "choices to contend for the title at this week's International." The name of runaway winner, Davis Love III, did not appear on either list. For sports as well as for the stock market, most reporters are a lot better at reporting the past than at predicting the future.

State Sen. Moe Keller, D-Wheat Ridge, illegally used a nonprofit mailing permit to send out 22,000 pieces of political literature on behalf of herself; when Republicans complained, she was forced to pay $1,766 to the post office. A balanced article in the News reported the facts and included various quotes on the controversy. The Post, however, brusquely dismissed the issue as "bickering over 8 cents," failing to provide readers with the total cost of the illegal mailing, or the number of letters involved (Aug. 3).

Earlier this month, local and national media applied saturation coverage to a tiny and insignificant procedural hearing in the Kobe Bryant case.

The attention that local media lavished on this nothing-burger far exceeded how much detail they've provided about many vastly more important decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court, Colorado Supreme Court or 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in recent years.

 

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