Washington State has two choices: a ten times higher rate of cancer among its population, particularly those who eat a lot of fish, or a bedraggled economy. That's the takeaway from Robert McClure and InvestigateWest's new story—assuming you believe the big business side of the argument.
You should go read the whole thing, but the bottom line is there are plenty of toxic chemicals—things like PCBs, arsenic and mercury—that run off from our streets into our waters and into the bodies of fish. The presence of those pollutants puts anyone who eats fish, especially Native American tribes, fishers, and others who do so in especially large quantities, at risk of cancer.
The state, then, uses an assumed fish consumption rate to determine how great the cancer risks to the population are. Currently, the rate is based on 1970s era studies, but it's probably much higher. Oregon bumped up its estimate in 2011 to reflect current data. Now, it's up to Governor Inslee and the Department of Ecology to make that call.
But Boeing and the Seattle Chamber of Commerce are against raising the figure, which would prompt stronger water pollution regulations. When the state was on the verge of making the change in 2010, Christine Gregoire torpedoed the move after a last-minute meeting with a Boeing executive. And those business interests are pressuring Inslee against the change now. Why? Because, they say, raising the fish consumption rate would "kill the economy,” as a former Department of Ecology director told InvestigateWest.
Which sounds an awful lot like the sky-is-falling predictions we've heard from Seattle businesses against raising the minimum wage. Is there any regulation in the public interest that big business doesn't cry wolf on?
One thing to consider is that the measure of increased cancer risk is based on 70 years of exposure to a given pollutant. Also keep in mind that Washington’s population is about 6.9 million people. So if the allowable cancer rate were to be set at one in 100,000 people instead of one in 1 million people, the difference would be roughly 62 extra cases of cancer over 70 years—if the assumptions are right. It could be more or it could be fewer.
One of Inslee’s advisers is Seattle attorney Rod Brown.
“What’s your social judgment about how much risk is acceptable for a carcinogen?” Brown asks. “It sounds like math, but it’s also a social judgment.”
Posing that question assumes there's a compelling reason to allow for higher risks, but that's only true if you take the industry argument at face value. Inslee is "on the verge" of directing the Department of Ecology on how to go forward, according to the story.