Since the Alameda County Board of Education took action regarding the danger tritium emissions could pose to children on field trips to the Lawrence Hall of Science, people associated with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) have written opinion pieces attacking the credibility of the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste. Although I’m not a member of the Committee, the tone and tenor of these attacks are such that I feel obligated to respond. The Committee is made up of citizens who volunteer their time because they are concerned about their community and the dangers posed by tritium. Although these folks are not scientists their belief that LBNL’s activities endanger this community has been confirmed on several occasions, such as when the Environmental Protection Agency, in response to a Committee complaint, put the lab site on the Superfund list because the tritium emissions were found to have exceeded federal cancer-risk screening concentrations.
Contrast this with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), which gets millions of dollars to do tritium experiments, or the Lawrence Hall of Science, which makes money for each visiting student. We need not wonder if economic motives might one day cause the LBNL to deceive the public, they have already been caught misleading the public on several occasions.
• On April 20, 1998 LBNL discharged 160 gallons of water contaminated with tritium, arsenic, mercury and lead into a storm drain and failed to report it, later claiming they were not required to. Nabil Al-Hadithy, Director of Berkeley’s Toxic Management Division, responded with a letter stating, “Since your communication sets a dangerous precedent in pollution prevention it is being forwarded to the District Attorney...”
• On May 15, 1998 LBNL mixed tritium with toxic waste, mislabeled it, and send it to a facility that is not licensed to dispose of radioactive material.
• When LBNL accidentally released tritium on July 24, 1998, they delayed taking urine samples from lab employees for three days and failed to report the incident to the public for six days. And these are just some of the things we know about!
So when one is weighing credibility one should keep these facts in mind. Still it’s hard to decide who to believe. Both the members of the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste, and LBNL supporters speak with a passion that comes from believing they are right. The difference in perspective comes down to something called the “precautionary principle,” a public health doctrine that states “When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”
The “precautionary principle” has been used in Europe since the 1980s, and is a major reason European countries insist that bioengineered food products be labeled. In the United States, regulatory agencies often require “scientific certainty” of harm before declaring a chemical, product or activity to be dangerous. “Scientific certainty” is the approach that industry used for three decades to convince the Environmental Protection Agency not to regulate carbon dioxide emissions since there was no scientific certainty such emissions would result in global warming. Now that the evidence is in, no credible scientist disagrees that carbon dioxide emissions did resulted in global warming.
But despite the lessons of global warming Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) opposes the “precautionary principle.” They don’t want non-scientists, such as teachers or parents, to make decisions that might cost Lawrence Hall of Science money unless it is “scientifically certain” that the levels of tritium the children are exposed to are dangerous. The weakness of the “scientific certainty” approach is that it will not acknowledge an activity or product to be dangerous until the damage is done.
In this case children visiting the Lawrence Hall of Science are the guinea pigs. Decades from now, if they suffer from cancer or give birth to deformed children, “scientific certainty” will conclude that tritium levels were harmful. Considering that nearly 100,000 children a year visit the Lawrence Hall of Science the school board should not risk the health and safety of so many children. They should adopt the “precautionary principle” and suspend all field trips to the Lawrence Hall of Science until an independent study can determine to a “scientific certainty” that exposure to tritium does NOT pose a future threat to the health and safety of these young people.
Berkeley resident Elliot Cohen has been involved in researching nuclear issues for more than 20 years. In the mid 1980s he worked for New York City Council Member Ruth Messinger as a environmental aide, where his duties included researching and drafting comments regarding low-level radioactive waste disposal. In Berkeley he helped organize the protest against the Cassini space launch, and has spent two years studying the Nuclear Free Berkeley Act.