A COMMITTEE of scientists was appointed some months ago by New York Gov. Hugh Carey to look into the handling of the Love Canal crisis. One of its conclusions was that ineptitude, errors and politically motivated commentary on the part of both federal and state authorities and by some privately employed scientists "fueled rather than resolved public anxiety."
For a variety of reasons, numerous studies and reports on the effects of the leaking chemicals at Love Canal have misled the public. New York health officials presented their results with scarifying, overblown adjectives. Studies by the federal Environment Protection Agency seemed designed to provide evidence to support pending lawsuits rather than to provide medically useful information. Other scientists investigating the chemicals' effects appeared to have gotten caught up in promoting a cause -- help for the residents of Love Canal -- to the detriment of their objectivity.
Because of these and other confusions, the actual dangers facing those who live near this chemical dump have become entwined with possible dangers, imagined effects, rumors and just plain false information. The resulting anxiety further complicates the medical detective work that needs to be done, since stress itself can cause a variety of ailments similar to those that might be caused by the chemicals. It goes without saying that the perhaps unnecessary psychological suffering has been intense.
The Love Canal experience raises a question that has cropped up several times before: should a regulatory agency, or any agency charged with making policy, also conduct the basic research that underpins its actions? In this case, for example, should EPA -- which bears the responsibility for regulating chemical dumping and for cleaning up existing dump sites -- have contracted for the controversial chromosome study? Or might it have been better handled by the Center for Disease Control, the National Institute for Environmental Health Services or some other agency whose primary mission is public health and research?
There are drawbacks to removing all or part of the research capability from an agency. The agency's ability to interpret scientific results may be weakened, along with its ability to attract first-class technical personnel. Policy agencies argue that they cannot force a separate agency to do a particular piece of research or to get it done in the time the regulator thinks necessary. But this can also be a great advantage, avoiding mistakes from overly hasty reactions to preliminary studies, such as the Food and Drug Administration's premature call for regulation of nitrites, which later had to be retracted.
There is something to be said on both sides of this argument. A seperate research agency would certainly insulate controversial studies from political and economic pressures, and would give added scientific credibility to whatever results eventually emerge. On the other hand, it could weaken the ability of the regulating agency to make intelligent decisions based on technical evidence. What is indisputable is that the advantages of such an arrangement seem to merit far more serious consideration than they have been given.