Letter - July 2021

In reference to Ted Rulseh’s April column, “When Rationality Is Cast Aside,” two phrases I learned many years ago stick with me: that a thing represents a “double-edged sword,” and that one may be “hoisted by one’s own petard.”

So it is with arguments that we need to follow, trust, and rely on science. Of course we do. Only we seldom get the balanced outcomes desired by sensible people. Science is political even where it is not politicized. 

Science and research are funded by certain parties, not all of them disinterested. It may be used and is used to justify political and ideological decision-making. (Sometimes I think I’m the only person who got anything out of the Yes, Minister episodes that aired on public television.) 

Indeed, the very provision of water and wastewater services can be political where capacity and line extensions are to be decided.  Who is or is not served, who is to benefit, how, when and why — those are all political decisions. And those are simple matters compared to the huge issues we face.

So in the same issue where you write about the need to advocate for science, where you specifically cite the challenging cases of our response to climate change and coronavirus, there’s concern expressed alongside it, in the article “A Heavy Burden,” that science is driving unsound, unwise and unreasonable actions regarding PFAS in wastewater biosolids.

That piece looks at the “substantial impacts” PFAS and its state-by-state regulation are having on management programs. Here again, I would submit that what we see is science in the service of political ends, to say nothing of the fact that it is decades late regardless.

If in fact PFAS are toxic to one bodily system or another at ultra-low parts-per-trillion concentrations, and if we discount all the voluntary and ongoing human exposure to it by other routes, and if we ignore all the other environmental pollutants and insults such as radionuclides, PCBs and pharmaceutical residues that are (still) out there, then it follows, logically, in a risk-averse world, and especially among persons who prefer absolutes, that biosolids containing even traces of PFAS should not be spread on residential lawns or agricultural land. There can be no beneficial use. Not at all.

I had to suppress the impulse to finish that last paragraph with, “Nonsense!” I agree that science is helpful in decision-making. What is really needed in the world, however, and sorely lacking, is first, intellectual honesty and integrity among decision makers, and second their thorough deliberation and judgment, together with a sense of proportion surrounding the magnitude, significance and management of risks of whatever kind.

Dennis Wanless

Burlington, North Carolina


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