Physiological Politics

In 2001, the Environmental Working Group published a report titled “Rocket Science: Perchlorate and the Toxic Legacy of the Cold War.” The topic was the alarming exposure of people in California to perchlorate, an ingredient in the fuel used for missiles.

In 2007, Dr. Anila Jacob, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, testified before the House Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials. “Perchlorate has been long established in the medical literature as a potent compound with known capacity to lower thyroid hormone levels. Low thyroid hormone levels in pregnant women and infants, in turn, are an established risk factor for abnormal brain development in the fetus and intellectual deficits in children.”

Yesterday, several national newspapers reported that EPA would take no action to regulate perchlorate levels in tap water. The papers were consistent in describing how a group from the White House and the Defense Department eviscerated the recommendations of EPA staff scientists.

No one should be surprised at this outcome. In April EPA unveiled its “more predictable, streamlined, and transparent” process for standard setting. Kyla Bennett, a Director of the organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said, “Under this system, every chemical risk assessment is a special interest scrum. Had this process been in place, the tobacco industry would have stopped EPA from declaring secondhand smoke a lung cancer risk.”

It’s shameful and monstrous—but not because the staff scientists were overruled. I can imagine them being overruled for not recommending stricter perchlorate standards. I can also imagine another kind of process that is predictable, streamlined, and transparent: unless you can prove it’s safe, you can’t use it.

Reading all this, I wondered how those people from the White House and the Defense Department could sacrifice the health of children for the sake of missile fuel. I imagine that, for them, missile fuel is so important that they are not so much blind as insensitive to the consequences. I imagine thinking like this: missile fuel is necessary for the defense of the country and so protects children, and far outweighs any possible harm from perchlorate, harm that is in any event not proven, a view advocated, let’s be honest, by alarmists of questionable patriotism.

I read an interesting article this week about the formation of cultural groups that attempts to demonstrate just how deeply this us-versus-them tendency runs. The experiment took unrelated people and had each freely choose one of two shapes—a circle or a triangle. To reassure you, this wasn’t one of those horrifying guards-and-prisoners experiments. Nevertheless, what the researchers saw develop was a very definite in-group, out-group culture based on nothing more than a meaningless shape that was nevertheless invested with symbolic meaning as time went on. The hypothesis on which the researchers built their experiment is that the capacity to develop cultural groups is deeply embedded in our evolutionary development as social animals. Those White House and Defense Department monsters are not another species, but have instead invested in an alien culture with dire consequences. That alien culture is based on fear.

Another article I read last week describes an experiment in the physiological basis of political beliefs. These researchers worked with a group of people with strong political opinions. They tested each person for their startle response—the body’s reaction to something frightening. What they found is that people with a heightened startle response tended to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the War on Iraq.

The effect of perchlorate on the thyroid increases the startle response, which increases the tendency to support the monstrous culture of fear emanating from the White House, which actively prevents our being protected from perchlorate. Quite a vicious circle of frightening people failing to protect us from literally frightening chemicals that make us prone to elect those frightening people.