A classic example of journalists falling for a stunningly stupid scientific scare-falling en masse and really hard-was the outcry over treating food with radiation.
The irradiation process would give consumers wonderful new options: strawberries that stay fresh three weeks, and chicken without the harmful levels of salmonella that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says kill six hundred Americans every year, and cause countless cases of food poisoning. (The last time you thought you had the flu, you may have really been sick from bacteria on chicken-this is no myth! Wash the counter, your hands, and everything that touches raw meat, because they are all crawling with potentially dangerous germs.)
But reporters and environmental activists don't worry much about the horrible toll from bacteria. For some reason, even when bacteria pose a far greater risk, the media obsess about chemicals and radiation. Radiation! Horrors! Three Mile Island! Jane Fonda! Nuclear bombs!
They don't worry much about bacteria because bacteria is natural. But radiation is natural too. We are exposed to natural radiation every minute of our lives: cosmic radiation from space, radiation from the ground, and radiation from radon in the air we breathe. Every year, the average U.S. citizen is exposed to natural radiation equal to about 360 dental X-rays.
The reporters and protesters probably didn't know that, but even if they did, they'd still be upset because irradiation plants propose passing radiation through food. News stories featured Dr. Walter Burnstein, founder of a "consumer group" named Food & Water, saying, "This will be a public health disaster of the magnitude we have never seen before!" I have to admire the activists' skill in naming groups: Food & Water. What reporter could argue with a group with a name like that? They must be the good guys, right? I interviewed Dr. Burnstein and his "political organizer," Michael Colby.
MR. COLBY If you look at the existing studies on humans and animals fed irradiated food, you will find testicular tumors, chromosomal abnormalities, kidney damage, and cancer and birth defects.
STOSSEL Caused because somebody ate irradiated food?
MR. COLBY Absolutely. Absolutely.
STOSSEL [Food & Water claimed an Indian study had said that, but we called the author and she told us she didn't conclude that at all.] We just talked to her and she says she didn't say that! She never said those kids were developing cancer.
DR. BURNSTEIN These are pure scientists and she doesn't want to make that break. We are taking it the extra inch. We're saying to people, "Don't-don't be put to sleep by people who work in test tubes-don't." I don't need proof that it goes to cancer. We already know it leads to cancer.
Reporters gave Burnstein and Colby's dubious claims so much credulous press coverage that politicians in Maine quickly banned food irradiation. New York and New Jersey followed suit. That spread fear to other states. I went to Mulberry, Florida, to report on a protest against Vindicator, a plant that proposed using radiation to kill germs on strawberries. When I got there, demonstrators were marching with picket signs, chanting, "Don't nuke our food! Don't nuke our food!" Their campaign persuaded the state of Florida to put a moratorium on Vindicator's opening.