January 23, 1997

January 23, 1997 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

ED012397a: It's in The Water

I got such a kick out of the following whimsical story, which talk-radio personality Brian Wilson retrieved from the Internet, that I just have to share it with you.

Now, before you read this, please bear in mind: My purpose in sharing it is not to suggest that responsible, sensible environmentalism isn't something we should strive for. On the contrary, that's the whole point: When environmentalists adopt extremist positions and use government to impose unreasonable restrictions based on unproven "dangers," like the Alar scare a few years ago, they invite public ridicule. In the long run, this hurts their cause, which is a perfectly reasonable one.

Anyway, here's the story:

"LONDON: Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) recently announced the discovery of a new firefighting agent to be used in conjunction with existing ones such as dry powder and BCF (bromine-chlorine-flourine). Known as WATER, it is particularly suited for fires in buildings, timber yards, and warehouses.

"Though required in large quantities, it is cheap to produce, and can be stored in quantities of about a million gallons in urban areas and near other installations of high risk. BCF and dry powder are usually stored under pressure, but WATER will be stored in open ponds or reservoirs.

"Unfortunately, ICI's proposal already is encountering strong opposition from safety and environmental groups. Prof. Connie Barriner has pointed out that if anyone immersed their head in a bucket of WATER, it could prove fatal in as little as three minutes. Each of ICI's proposed reservoirs would contain enough water to fill 500,000 buckets. As each bucket could easily be used 100 times, there is enough water in one reservoir to kill the entire population of the UK. Risks of this size, said Barringer, should not be allowed, whatever the gain. If WATER were to get out of control, the incidents at Seveso or Bhopal would pale by comparison. What use was a firefighting agent that could kill people as well as put out fires?

"One local official already has said he would strongly oppose granting permission for construction of a WATER reservoir in his area, unless the most stringent precautions were followed. Open pools were certainly not acceptable. What would prevent people falling in them? What would prevent the contents from leaking out? At the very least, WATER would need to be contained in a steel pressure vessel surrounded by a concrete containment wall.

"A spokesman from the fire brigades said he did not see the need for the new agent. Dry powder and BCF could cope with most fires. The new agent would bring risks, particularly to firemen. Did we know what would happen when this new chemical was exposed to intense heat? Would it decompose into something even more dangerous?

"An environmentalists group, the Friends of the World, said it had obtained a sample of the new chemical WATER and found it caused clothes to shrink. If it did this to cotton, what would it do to humans?

"In the House of Commons yesterday, the Home Secretary was asked if he would prohibit the manufacture and storage of this lethal new chemical. He replied that local authorities would have to take advice from the Health and Safety Executive before giving planning permission. A full investigation is planned by the Major Hazards Group ...

Of course, the whole reason this satirical tale is funny is because the environmental movement has cried wolf a few too many times: Dire warnings of cancer if rats eat enough saccharine to fill Hoover Dam are never going to be taken seriously by sensible people. And we've all heard stories like this by now -- not jokes, but serious situations affecting people's lives.

When jokes like this one no longer resonate, we'll stop repeating them.

Note: Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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