Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Thoughts about environmental reporting

Have you ever noticed that when you listen to the news on a topic that you know nothing about, you assume that the reporter knows what he or she is talking about? But when you are knowledgeable about the subject, you're surprised by how many things the reporter doesn't understand or actually gets wrong? It's kind of like how, when I'm driving, I expect all of the pedestrians to get out of my way. But if I'm walking, I assume that the cars should avoid me.

Anyway, I was listening to a news report yesterday about a landfill (dump) that was contaminating nearby groundwater (water contained in rocks below the ground surface) and my ears perked up. In my former life (before kids), I used to investigate abandoned hazardous waste sites (fascinating, icky places like mine tailings, old manufacturing plants, and dumps). But the reporter never talked about hazardous wastes or even hazardous substances. She said that monitoring wells around the landfill had detected "toxic chemicals" in the groundwater.

Now, this may not be wrong, but it doesn't tell us much. The word "toxic" has a specific meaning under the law, but reporters tend to throw it around randomly. As far as "chemicals" go, most anything can be a chemical. A quick search of online definitions tells us that chemicals result from reactions that effect changes to atoms or molecules.

So, have we learned anything about what's actually been found in the groundwater? No. Even assuming that the reporter is correct and the substance meets the legal definition of a toxic chemical, we could be looking the effects of anything from arsenic (a metal) to chlorine (a gas). We don't know if the substance dissolves in water or if it floats or sinks.

The reporter went on to say that the mystery substance was detected at levels that exceeded 50 times what the environmental agencies say is safe for drinking water. That sounds really scary, doesn't it? But she never said if anyone was actually drinking the water. Monitoring wells often are very shallow and examine water that most people would never drink anyway. Don't get me wrong, it's not great if water is contaminated. But it isn't quite as bad as it sounds.

So, the next time you listen to your news and think, that doesn't sound right, trust your gut. As we've discussed before, everyone has their own bias. Even me!


CricketB said...

In Ottawa in the 80s, aka Silicon Valley North, the science reporter didn't know the difference between CO and CO2, and silicon and silicone. It makes me wonder how knowlegable they are on subjects I know nothing about.

jublke said...

I hear you, CricketB. But somehow, I read or listen to the news and usually I just assume that the reporters know what they are talking about. I'm not sure why I forget to think critically about what I'm hearing or seeing, but I often do.