Environment

The Banality of Slow Drips

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJul 15, 2010 6:42 PM

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Over the years, Andrew Revkin has perceptively identified "slow drip" environmental stories as a category unto itself. These range from the tragic to the banal. It's bad enough that these "slow drip" stories receive little sustained coverage; it's worse when you write about them and nobody seems to notice. John Fleck, the superb science writer for The Albuquerque Journal, reflects on why this might be at his blog:

I did a story in 2001 about research by a clever scientist named Bob Root who had quantified the lead wheel weights falling off of our cars' wheels. The amount was staggering "“ four tons per year in a city the size of Albuquerque, being ground up into toxic dust. I wrote a front page story. No one called me. No one called Bob. There was no outrage, no calls for regulation. Nada. It's easy to imagine what the level of outrage would have been if the contamination was coming for a corporate polluter. Or, this being New Mexico, one of our nuclear weapons research centers. But perception of risk and outrage over its causes seems to be strongly linked to our beliefs about who is responsible. With no evil actor behind the lead wheel weights, no one seemed to care.

Fleck's post was prompted by a column (sub req) he wrote this week, revisiting the same toxic dust problem ten years later. This time, he put a different twist on it:

Imagine what might happen if we discovered some company was clandestinely dumping 4 tons a year of toxic waste on the streets of Albuquerque.

Let's call it DefenseCo Inc., and let's say its workers were dribbling out their toxic waste a tiny bit at a time as they drove around the city's streets, year after year after year, spreading it all over town hoping no one would notice.

Just to juice it up, imagine it was a type of toxic waste that was especially harmful to children, and that this was happening all over the country, not just in Albuquerque.

Imagine the outrage.

That is, in fact, what is happening, with a caveat. It's not DefenseCo Inc. that's dumping the toxic waste in our streets. It's you and me.

The waste we're dumping is lead, which falls off our cars' wheels in dribs and drabs, is ground into dust, and ends up who knows where.

As hazardous materials go, lead is a bad actor. Children are especially vulnerable. It can damage nervous systems and slow cognitive growth.

The fact that it's ordinary drivers causing this, rather than an evil corporate polluter, matters not a bit in terms of the health and environmental risks. Lead is lead.

Again, Fleck was greeted by silence from readers. And people wonder why there's no public outrage over global warming, perhaps the biggest "slow drip" story of our time.

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