Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Were Aerosol Spray Cans Really a Threat?

SPOTLIGHT: There’s a long history of scientists spreading premature alarm in the media.

BIG PICTURE: Bernie Lewin’s exhaustively researched book, Searching for the Catastrophe Signal, describes how the US campaign against spray can CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) began.

In September 1974, a Harvard atmospheric scientist told a New York Times journalist that hairspray and other aerosol products were damaging the Earth’s ozone layer. The front page news story explained that ozone protects the planet “from lethal ultraviolet radiation.”

Readers were only advised in paragraphs 34 and 35 that no one had yet taken “a hard look at the Harvard calculations” since the research was still in the process of being submitted to a scientific journal.

By the time it was officially published four months later, its robustness was beside the point. An anti-CFC movement was already in full swing. Television newscaster Walter Cronkite and others had hyped the findings and a frenzy of activity had ensued – including ‘ban the can’ consumer boycotts, congressional hearings, and a raft of proposed legislation.

After being asked to investigate, a National Academies of Science panel said immediate action was premature since the scientific picture was still too cloudy. (A British government report similarly concluded there was no urgent problem.) But the political momentum was too strong.

Ignoring the panel’s findings, the Food and Drug Administration announced a ban, improperly telling the public it was a “known fact” that CFCs were “breaking down the ozone layer.” Soon afterward, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its own ban.

TOP TAKEAWAY: Environmental scares take on a life of their own. Scientists, journalists, regulators, and politicians all have a track record of jumping on bandwagons well before solid evidence is available.


Searching for the Catastrophe Signal: The Origins of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
Bernie Lewin

Read the full text of the New York Times article for free beginning at the top of page 38704 here. 1,400 words later, it ends with paragraph 36, which reads: “‘It is,’ he said, ‘a very unusual situation for science.'”

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This entry was posted on January 17, 2018 by in activist scientists, historical perspective, media and tagged , , , .
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