EXAMINER PUBLICATIONS – APRIL 29, 2009
By Rich Trzupek
The April 19 headline was a classic. Indeed, anytime one can use the word “poison” on page one, one is pretty much guaranteed to sell a bunch of papers, and given the sorry state of the newspaper that used to be the Chicago Tribune, it’s not hard to understand why the editors of that once proud publication would resort to shrieking language that is normally the purview of the National Enquirer.
According to the Trib’s environmental reporter, Michael Hawthorne, the south suburban village of Crestwood had been poisoning its residents for years by providing them with “tainted” water. Politicians like Governor Pat Quinn and Congressmen Bobby Rush were quick to express their outrage, which was predictable, and Crestwood residents were angry, which is understandable. At a minimum, one does not expect one’s elected representatives to try to kill them.
Lost among all the righteous indignation and fear there was this simple, scientific truth: nobody was actually poisoned. And I get to say that, because, unlike Messr. Hawthorne, I actually have the credentials to do so.
Hawthorne has made a career out whipping up fear based on twisted-truths and ignorance, devoid of any scientific training of which I am aware. In contrast, as veteran readers of this column know, your humble correspondent is an actual chemist who has been practicing environmental science for over two decades. Hit pieces like this one sicken me.
The crux of the Trib’s story was that Crestwood – sometimes – blended well-water with Lake Michigan water and this well-water – sometimes – might contain up to seven parts per billion of vinyl chloride, which is a “toxic” chemical. Horrors! The obvious conclusion that readers were left to infer was that Crestwood residents could look forward to a lifetime of three-legged, one-armed babies whom would be lucky to live past their first birthday.
Hogwash. Without getting into a full-blown, and incredibly boring, scientific explanation of why (which I’ll be happy to do, by the way, if someone is interested in the dry details), there is nothing wrong with what Crestwood is accused of doing and the residents of that community were certainly not placed at any risk.
The physician Paracelsus famously said “the dose makes the poison”, and there’s not enough of a dose in this case to poison a guinea pig. Would I drink the water described in the Trib’s story? In a minute. Not only would I drink it, I would serve it to my daughter and I would confidently mix baby-formula with such water.
Now I don’t know much more about Crestwood than its location, which happens to be down the road apiece from the southeast-side Chicago neighborhood that gave the world the Trzupek clan. Crestwood may be a fabulously well-run community, and it may be an embarrassment. I don’t have a clue and frankly I don’t care.
What is distressing about stories like this, for me, is that they add to the climate of fear that defines more and more of our lives. It’s odd, isn’t it? We’re not supposed to use the phrase “war on terror” any longer, because doing so is supposedly alarmist. And that’s fine. But when it comes to our new, “green” world, no amount of alarmism seems to be off limits.
Is there a price to pay for this kind of fear-mongering? You bet there is. Hawthorne’s latest attempt to become Aaron Brockovich (yes, I know how her name is really spelled, it’s a pun folks) will surly cost many a suburb dearly. As long as that guy is running around with a notebook, do you think anyone is going to be using well-water around these parts? Hell no. There are parts per billion of this and that to be found everywhere, and why take the chance that the Trib is going to accuse your town of poisoning residents?
That leaves a single source of water for most suburbs: Lake Michigan. The City of Chicago controls that particular source of water and has been steadily raising the rates it charges for years. It’s nice to have a monopoly. In one stroke, the Trib has eliminated the only possible option for many suburbs, good old well water. No doubt Michael Hawthorne will win the Chicago Water Department’s coveted “Salesman of the Year” award.
We’ve come a long way in almost forty years of environmental protection. Though you would never suspect it based on the disinformation we see in the mainstream media, our country is far cleaner now than it was back in the seventies, when the first major environmental protection legislation became law.
It’s a testament to how far we have come that minutia like the situation in Crestwood can capture headlines. A sad testament, to be sure, but no doubt we’ll see even more of such silliness in this topsy-turvey world we live in today.