NET NEWS: Risk Web Sites Draw Words of Caution

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  23 Apr 1999:
Vol. 284, Issue 5414, pp. 551
DOI: 10.1126/science.284.5414.551c

With a quick trip on the Web, you can now find out what chemical brew your town's factories spew or which pesticides might linger on that peach you're about to bite. Environmental groups are taking full advantage of the Net to post chemical data they gather or pry from federal agencies. Some scientists, however, worry that the sites are exaggerating the public health threat by failing to put risks in perspective.

One example is the Environmental Defense Fund's (EDF's) Scorecard (scorecard.org), a trove on industrial and vehicle emissions that was enhanced this week with controversial estimates of how much emissions actually wind up in the air. Although environmental health scientists give the site high marks for increasing the public's access to chemical data, some are assigning lower grades for how well it puts risks in context. “What they're looking at may be only part of the picture,” says Tim Buckley of Johns Hopkins University, who notes that sources of airborne chemicals in a house—like cigarettes and solvents—may dwarf emissions from outside. EDF's Bill Pease agrees with Buckley's analysis, but says his group soon hopes to add data to the site from a study that used personal pollution monitors to track exposures in eight communities.

Scorecard, which is “pretty sophisticated and responsible,” shouldn't be confused with less credible sites, says George Gray of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. One that's come under heavy fire (http://www.foodnews.org/) dips into a database of pesticide tests on foods to suggest which residues may—or may not—taint everything from vegetables to packaged cereals. Foodnews makes little effort to distinguish between acute and chronic exposures and ignores the old saw that “the dose makes the poison,” says Gray. “Frankly, they're trying to scare people.” Richard Wiles of the Environmental Working Group, the site's sponsor, responds that its methodology is “well within” government guidelines.

Navigate This Article