Interpreting Risk - In Health and Science, precision is critical.

The complainant, Constantine Kritsonis, accused CBC News of using “Orwellian statements” to avoid stating the real risk to human health and the environment in two different stories. The reports accurately and precisely reported on what credible scientists understand to be the case. The reports were accurate and professional.

COMPLAINT

You had two complaints based on material published on the cbcnews.ca science and health pages. One was a short mention in a feature called Second Opinion, a weekly round-up of health-related stories. You had concerns about an account of the difficulty scientists were experiencing in an attempt to have a hazardous chemical compound called BENPAT placed on Canada’s list of toxic substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. You objected to the reporter’s mention that although no human health risk was established through the research, the substance was a danger to the environment and is “highly hazardous to aquatic organisms.” You considered this nonsense - that this chemical compound is clearly a danger to humans, and that is what should have been stated. You quoted from the screening report on this substance as proof of this:

The final screening assessment report (FSAR) concluded that BENPAT is entering or may enter the environment in a quantity or concentration or under conditions that have or may have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity, as defined in paragraph 64(a) of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA1999)"

You explained “humans are part of *biological diversity* according to the act.”

Based on your assessment that humans are part of biological diversity, you contested the statement in the story that “no human health risk was established.” You called it an “Orwellian statement opposite to reality” and “a danger to society.”

Your second concern also involved a statement from a scientist. In this case it referred to the breaking apart of an Antarctic ice shelf. The article was entitled Why the Antarctic ice shelf broke apart and what it means. It was the sub-head that concerned you and which you thought was false. It was “Too early to tell if this calving is linked to climate change, scientists say.” Quoting that statement from a NASA scientist is “cherry picking”, you said, and that his view is a minority one. You wanted to know why CBC was “promoting some wingnut” who was espousing this view and added there were many other NASA scientists who say there is a link. You refute the caveat provided that the iceberg may have broken apart anyway, and that is why the direct link to climate change can’t be made:

Many more scientists will explain that there is a *link* between bergs detaching and climate change. Where are those voices that disagree with NASA? Should they have been included for balance? What is a *direct link* that NASA refers to when saying there is none?

According to NASA they mean you cannot prove this wouldn't have happened anyways. This logic is also applied by politically connected weather scientists to claim there is no link to the recent hurricanes with record level force. You can't prove they would not have happened anyways.

You said the links were proved long ago because scientific modelling of the effects of climate change predicted the kind of calving of ice shelves we are experiencing. “How are those scientific models not ‘links,’” you asked.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Mark Harrison, the head of CBC’s Health, Science and Technology unit, replied to your concerns. He apologized for the length of time it had taken to do so, as you made these complaints in mid-July. Since the two came a day apart, he chose to answer them in one reply, and that is why I have combined them in this review.

He addressed your concern about the designation of BENPAT. He pointed out that Environment Canada states the following:

These substances were identified as a high priority for screening assessment and included in the Challenge initiative under the Chemicals Management Plan because they were found to meet the ecological categorization criteria for persistence, bioaccumulation potential and inherent toxicity to non-human organisms and are believed to be in commerce in Canada."

He explained that the scientists have not made the determination that the compound presents a human health risk, and CBC journalists cannot do that themselves. He added:

It is possible to take issue with the scope of Environment Canada's evaluation and extrapolate that if something harms aquatic organisms, then it likely is hazardous to humans as well, but that isn't our job nor is it what the story was about. We were simply drawing attention to the fact that BENPAT had been identified as an environmental risk and yet it has not been controlled, because of objections from a corporation that is responsible for at least some of the pollution. As far as I know, no other media outlet has covered this story.

He also addressed your concern about the ice shelf story. He told you that the scientist quoted Dr. Christopher Shuman, who is a Research Scientist at the Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre. He has authored several papers on ice loss in Antarctica and Greenland. Mr. Harrison noted that the point Dr. Schuman was making was that there is not a clear connection at this time; however he does not reject it as a possibility. Mr. Harrison also told you there was further context about the role of global warming provided by another research quoted in the story, and by the mention of the fact that this break had occurred in a part of the Antarctic that has experienced warming since 1950.

REVIEW

The bedrock of CBC journalism is accuracy and impartiality. Accuracy calls for the “seeking out of the truth in the public interest, and to gathering, assessing and presenting the facts in a way that helps citizens inform themselves and make judgments about issues that are relevant. Impartiality calls for even-handed treatment; it also calls for analytic skills and professional judgment. In honing that expertise and judgment, especially in areas like science and medicine, reporters inform themselves, but they also must rely on up-to-date and peer-reviewed science. Because scientific knowledge evolves, and because so much of it has an impact on our health and environment, the Journalistic Standards and Practices has this to say about science and health reporting:

We take care to understand properly and reflect the true implications of medical or scientific study results that we obtain, especially those involving statistical data...

...In matters of human health we will take particular care to avoid arousing unfounded hopes or fears in persons living with or close to those living with serious illnesses. We will also avoid suggesting unproven benefits or risks to health related to changes in habits of consumption of food or pharmaceutical products.

Your deductive reasoning that the impact on aquatic organisms and danger to biodiversity includes humans, is an assessment you are welcome to make and believe. The scientific information available to the reporter enabled her to report the facts that have been presented in the 11 years scientists have been working to have BENPAT placed on the list of toxic chemicals under the Environmental Protection Act. The point of the brief story was just that - the length of time it had taken, and the opposition it had encountered from a tire manufacturer. Ms. Crowe laid out the information:

It’s a compound made up of three chemicals (1,4-Benzenediamine, N,N'-mixed phenyl and tolyl derivatives), which is imported to Canada and added to rubber tires to make them last longer. The compound gets into the environment in two ways: from industrial release and from the abrasion of tires when the rubber hits the road.

Although no human health risk was established, government scientists determined that BENPAT is a persistent pollutant that is "highly hazardous to aquatic organisms." In 2011 Environment Canada announced its intention to reduce the release of BENPAT in the environment "to the greatest possible extent."

The language is precise and reflects the known facts. There is a link to an Environment Canada document, which further can lead one to the final risk assessment of the substance, done in 2011. This document references the biodiversity risk and also states:

These substances were not considered to be a high priority for assessment of potential risks to human health, based upon application of the simple exposure and hazard tools developed for categorization of substances on the Domestic Substances List.

To have stated it is a hazard to human health would have been violating CBC policy on health and science reporting. The point of the story was that this is a toxic substance, harmful to the environment. In the broadest sense, that is not a good thing for humans, but it does not make inaccurate the statement that “no human health risk is established.”

The same framework applies to your complaint about the second article. The language is quite precise. According to an expert, there is no direct link between climate change and the breaking of the ice shelf - that is quite different from denying any connection. The article provided other scientific views and data that contributed to the understanding of why there may be a link but scientists are not categorical in their statements. It mentioned there has been a fifty-year warming trend in this part of Antarctica. It links to an article entitled: Climate change is making Antarctica greener.” It also referenced how global warming is affecting both the north and south poles, but it may not be the sole cause of the calving of the Larsen C ice shelf:

“We just can't make a clear connection to this being driven by climate change at this time," Shuman said. "This is a worrisome sign for the Larsen C: you can't lose 12 or 13 per cent of your area from an ice shelf and not think, 'Hmm. Well, that's an awful lot that's gone missing.' On the other hand, there have been previous large bergs from this area."

Still, this calving event occurred in an area of the Antarctic that has experienced a warming trend since the 1950s.

"There have been large increases in temperature in this region over the last half-century or so," said Martin O'Leary, a research scientist and glaciologist at Swansea University. "Obviously we have been seeing climate change impacts, and it's possible that this is going to put the ice shelf in a much more vulnerable position."

This is hardly the stuff of “wingnuts” nor is it, as you feared, the adherence to a pro-oil and gas lobby, or harming the efforts to protect the environment. It is adopting the precision scientists use, so that when they do point out links and predict the growing impact of climate change, their credibility and the credibility of journalists reporting on them remains intact.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman