The COVID-19 pandemic refocused society on the importance of science, accurate science reporting and science-based policymaking to help us navigate today’s complex world. But, these groups are still at risk of manipulation by special interests. Have we learned any lessons over the tumultuous last few years?

Consider the saga over a campaign to force telecom companies to remove legacy lead-sheathed telecom cables. The playbook is familiar. In collaboration with environmental groups, lawyers manufacture a scare relying on an analysis by a discredited academic targeting a major industry with deep pockets. The media, in this case the Wall Street Journal, runs a series of articles adhering to the activist/plaintiff narrative with little fact-checking or skepticism. Investors predict a transfer of wealth from the successful blue-chip companies we hold in our retirement accounts to the lawyers and their allies, causing stock prices to plummet.

Politicians predictably pour gas on the fire at this point in the play. On July 20, New York’s governor, Kathy Hochul, led the way, warning, without evidence, that “lead-covered cables pose a serious threat to communities across New York, and I am directing state agencies to immediately launch a full investigation.”

Leaving no doubt as to whom she believed to be the villain, even before the investigation began, Hochul bellowed, “We will hold the telecommunication companies responsible and take swift action to remediate any problems.”

And once again, without any scientific justification, the state closed a playground in the Dutchess County village of Wappingers Falls. Perhaps we haven’t learned that much from our mistakes during COVID.

Just one week later, however, the story took a dramatic and unusual turn. The adult scientists in the room found their voice and couldn’t help but embarrass the governor for her knee-jerk playground closing. The New York State Department of Health conducted a full investigation and issued a report, much like the ones released by the industry, finding no public health risk in the area and recommended the playground be reopened immediately.

We can’t help but note that one thing didn’t change from the usual storyline: an unjustified self-congratulatory announcement instead of an apology. New York State Health Commissioner James McDonald praised his agency and their partners, “Thanks to the swift action of experts at the Department of Health, the Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Dutchess County Department of Behavioral and Community Health, we are pleased to report that Temple Park in Wappingers Falls is safe for public use.” 

Let me remind you, it was safe for public use a week earlier, too, when they shut it down. The only required remediation or “swift action” was reversing their own scare-mongering order to close the playground.

All this because the Wall Street Journal abdicated its journalistic responsibilities and handed the keys to the printing press to an activist group and its lawyer-backed allies.

Had a Journal editor first consulted some of the scientists like those at New York’s regulatory agencies, or even a high school science teacher, they’d have had to kill the story after realizing there was no there, there. That’s because the premise of the articles, that these lead cables pose a health risk, ignores the funbdamental difference between hazard and risk.

A hazard (lead cables, in this case) is something that has the potential to cause harm. A risk is the likelihood of damage taking place as a result of exposure to that hazard. There’s no dispute that there’s a hazard here — and everywhere, including each time we leave our homes or even stay in them. Anyone could always get into an accident. But the risk, as the regulatory evaluations found, is near zero. There’s no credible evidence that any lead from these cables is making its way into drinking water or taking any other route into human bodies. In short, lead cables pose no remote harm to public health.

The cost of conflating hazard and risk is significant. New Street Research analyst Jonathan Chaplin said it could cost $59 billion to remove the low-risk cables. And that’s before factoring in the costs of “class-action lawsuits and (attorney general) lawsuits,” according to TD Cowan analysts.

Predictably, the Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency have opened an investigation. The administration has promised to use the best science to inform policymaking. Let’s hope there are some adult scientists in the room before the politicos do too much damage to our economy, the viability of our communications infrastructure and our hope that science can silence special interest junk-science scares.