Commentary: Who needs science anyway?

The Rock Hill HeraldMarch 9, 2013 

At first blush, I might have guessed that a group calling itself the American Suntanning Association was a group promoting nudism. Much to my disappointment, I learned it’s an organization representing 14,000 tanning salon owners.

According to a recent McClatchy Newspapers article, the association is campaigning to kill legislation in 17 states that would ban children under 18 from tanning salons. The group accuses the Federal Trade Commission of spreading misinformation about how extended exposure to ultraviolet radiation can lead to cancer.

The tanning industry wants to discredit warnings by scientists that radiation from indoor tanning salons is as carcinogenic as tobacco or asbestos. A 2007 study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that people who start tanning regularly before age 30 have a 75 percent higher chance of developing melanoma.

The American Suntanning Association wants to believe it’s exempt from a 2010 Federal Trade Commission order prohibiting another trade group, the Indoor Tanning Association, from making false safety and health claims about tanning beds, even though the two associations share many of the same members. That’s like a drug dealer telling the judge his previous convictions shouldn’t count because he changed his name.

The dispute between the sun-tanning industry and science has a depressingly familiar ring. How long did Big Tobacco persist in denying that smoking caused cancer?

By pressuring lawmakers to disregard evidence that children who spend a lot of time in tanning beds are more likely to develop skin cancer, the industry hopes to buy time. Sure, some kids will get melanoma, but that potentially fatal affliction may not show up until adulthood. In the meantime, 14,000 tanning salons continue to exploit their tan-infatuated customers.

Audacious denial of scientific fact has become so much a part of our world that we hardly blink when an industry takes issue with health experts about the harmful effects of its products.

A recent cover story in The New York Times Magazine describes how the processed food industry not only downplays the health risks of its products, but also that Big Food employs scientists to make the salt- and sugar-laden junk they sell even more addictive.

If we thought bringing Big Tobacco to justice was a long, hard slog, imagine the fight Big Food can muster. Coca Cola, Kraft Foods and their ilk aren’t about to let a bunch of pointy-headed scientists tell Americans what they shouldn’t eat.

It’s bad enough that science scofflaws hold the upper hand in the market place. It’s inexcusable when they are able to keep the public from learning about threats to their wellbeing, which appears to be the case in South Carolina.

The State newspaper had reported that for more than a year the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has been sitting on a report by a team of scientists that outlines the possible effects of climate change on the Palmetto State.

Among the changes scientists say South Carolina could face are: Dying marsh grass, beach flooding and diseases that wipe out such commercially important species as shrimp and crabs. The DNR study predicts that temperatures may rise up to nine degrees over the next 70 years, eliminating prime habitat for native species, including ducks, and exposing the state to invasions by such non-native species as piranha and Asian swamp eels.

South Carolinians don’t need a biology degree to appreciate how such changes could cost the state untold millions in damages. Unfortunately, they aren’t able to read the 102-page report because the DNR board has blocked its release.

Why? Because the report says global warming is a reality and recommends the DNR should help educate the public about climate change.

“The board only wanted to make certain that the effort was not to produce an advocacy document that pointed to the reasons for climate change, which remain under scientific debate,” DNR Board Chairman John Evans told The State.

The reasons for climate change may still be debated on the DNR board, but the world’s scientific community long since concluded that global warming is both real and manmade.

South Carolina’s state bird is the Carolina Wren. Perhaps it should be the ostrich.

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