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Letter: We have to understand environmental science in context

The Detroit News

In these times of grave concern over COVID-19 and climate change, we often hear or read the slogan, “Science matters,” and frequently in relation to the environment, amplifying the widespread belief that the environment is getting dirtier.

But is that what science is really telling us?

When I started working on environmental projects, we could detect pollutants as low as about 1 part per million. If you imagine an ordinary kid’s marble, in those days we could find 1 “polluting” marble in a box of marbles 10 feet long by 10 feet wide by about 1 foot high.

Today, we can detect many pollutants at 1 part per trillion, the same as finding 1 “polluting” marble in a box of marbles 10 feet long by 10 feet wide by about 200 miles (yes, miles) high. The size of the marbles could change these numbers a little, but not materially.

Today, we can detect many pollutants at 1 part per trillion, Doran writes.

The one marble that was found in the small 1-foot-high box would be the same as finding 1 million marbles in the 200-mile-high box. This is more than just a dramatic example because it helps us to frame the degree of risk.

So, when it’s reported that a “toxic” chemical has been detected in our water, the amount is critically important — one or a few “marbles” may mean nothing from a personal risk or environmental impact standpoint.

Yes, science matters, and what also matters is understanding what science is saying and isn’t saying.

Thomas M. Doran, fellow of the Engineering Society of Detroit and former adjunct engineering professor at Lawrence Technological University