Scientific researchers, policy advocates and journalists all
have to weigh the extent to which statistics reflect
Case in point California recycling. Back in May, the state's
recycling agency was "pleased to report that the overall
(beverage container) recycling rate for calendar 2009 was 82
percent, an increase of 8 percentage points over the 74 percent
recorded for calendar 2008." Then came the awkward element The
ratio for high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic containers
jumped to 109 percent from 91 percent in the same
"As a result, CalRecycle is investigating whether claims for
No. 2 HDPE plastic containers are being filed and processed
correctly. CalRecycle is also investigating the degree to which
fraud against the recycling program has increased reported
container returns of all material types."
So, has the program become increasingly effective, or
increasingly vulnerable to scams against the container-deposit
system, or some combination of both? AMM bypassed the
story. But was that too cynical?
Several weeks later, Susan Collins, executive director of
the Container Recycling Institute, suggested AMM
report on the California statistics. "This recycling rate is
terrific news," she wrote. "It's certainly the highest rate
since they expanded to most beverage types. The high rates in
the '80s were for just soda and beer."
AMM responded that the problem was the agency had
previously noted that some categories probably show inflated
percentages due to fraud. Collins wasn't convinced. "Earlier
this year there were reports of a $3.5-million fraud case, but
the entire fund brings in around $1 billion in deposit revenues
per year," she said in an e-mailed reply. "That's under
four-tenths of one percent." The scam transactions weren't
statistically material, in her view.
But there's no way to be sure. And for a potential news
story, an important ratio would be the one-year increase in
recycling vs. the one-year increase in fraud. The California
recycling agency has boosted its anti-fraud arrangements, with
29 recyclers ejected and another 20 flagged for special
scrutiny. Recent data show the counties where plastics scams
are most likely to have occurred are posting
steeper-than-average drops in plastics returns, a possible sign
Shaky operating data can affect the reputation of a
government agency, but shaky regulatory data can have wider
consequences-substantial financial impacts on businesses.
One assessment that US Magnesium LLC, Salt Lake City, has
involved itself in is a slow-motion review of the data on
dioxins. US Magnesium's interest involves a Superfund pollution
site, although dioxins also are a key concern in air emissions
precautions required at secondary aluminum smelters.
A National Academy of Sciences panel in 2006 cited possible
shortcomings in a broad U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
dioxin assessment dated 2003. The EPA's response came out in
May 2010. US Magnesium, responding in July, urged the EPA to
keep its advisory panel on a short leash until after the
comment period ends Sept. 20.
In some ways, the dioxin arguments are parallel to similar
arguments involving lead emissions. That wrangle is approaching
its final chapter, however. An appeals court ruling in May
backed the EPA's handling of scientific evidence behind a
90-percent cut in allowable pollution from secondary lead
One element of that dispute remains active in federal court,
however. How much access to the medical research data on lead
should skeptics be offered? That's the subject of a Freedom of
Information Act lawsuit by an attorney acting as her own client
in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh. According to a filing by
Amy Pohl, "the government says it cannot obtain the data from
the researchers but now attempts to block plaintiff from
joining (to the case) the researchers who do have the data."
She is relying largely on congressional action from 1998 called
the Shelby Amendment. Tucked into an appropriations bill, it
ordered that a regulation be altered to allow all federally
funded research data to be accessed through the Freedom of
The affected EPA contractor, Bruce Lanphear, said he pooled
lead data from some earlier researchers with a promise that
confidentiality would be maintained.
The EPA also has to deal with something called the
Information Quality Act, which requires federal agencies to
ensure the objectivity and integrity of federally produced
According to some policy advocates, the push for research
transparency implicitly aims at curtailing scientists'
influence on government regulations.
A Clinton administration official, after returning to his
public health professorship, wrote a book on such efforts
called Doubt Is Their Product How Industry's War on Science
Threatens Your Health. David Michaels cited controversies
over the impact on health of beryllium, lead, mercury, chromium
and nickel. His views once again matter, since Michaels has
returned to government as assistant secretary of Labor in
charge of the Occupational Safety and Health