Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Contaminated common sense

Everyone seems all aflutter over the prospect of formaldehyde in their clothes, despite the apparent ease with which one can remove the stuff by simply washing them before you put them on. Contaminated clothes is the issue of the morning for the media--the perfect "human disinterest story."

Remember though when everyone was all aflutter over contaminated soils? Auckland's councils, if you'll recall, insisted people's backyards had been contaminated by earlier horticultural use, and between them they insisted that we be all aflutter over what horrors these contaminated soils might lead to.

Councils issued all sorts of press statements and placed all sorts of legal declarations on property titles. Parents were warned not to let their children play outside, and to take particular care with washing vegetables grown in these soils, and to wear gloves while gardening. Values of sections plummeted and many sales were lost because of the scare. Newspapers were sold, television reporters looked concerned, and everyone got right into the swing (as you do) of being all aflutter.

Guess what? There was nothing to worry about. Notes Owen McShane, who at the time was one of the few to actually look at the scare story objectively:
[Recent] Auckland Regional Council minutes record that good science has now prevailed and the "thresholds" for contamination have been brought into line with international best practice with the result that hardly any properties in Auckland can be declared contaminated.

At the time of "the great panic" ARC press releases were claiming that up to 5,000 residential sites in Auckland City had been rendered toxic by their previous use as vineyards, orchards or general horticulture.

A "well informed source" tells me that, using the revised criteria, this number has been reduced to maybe half a dozen sites.
A chocolate fish goes to the first person who sees this news reported anywhere other than the usual few skeptics of this stuff. As McShane concludes, "in spite of the huge newspaper and general media coverage given to the claimed crisis of toxic soils in Auckland's back yards at the time ... the public has not been advised that those fears have now proven groundless, and that the ARC has changed its criteria. This is an unfortunate pattern. Premature science is used to scare people witless, and the news media have a field day. But when the science finally proves the fears to be totally without foundation there is no attempt to set the record straight."
So the ARC is to be congratulated for admitting error and setting things to rights.
But shouldn't someone let the Auckland public know?
The real scare story is not contaminated clothes or uncontaminated soils, but contaminated common sense.


  1. Reason number 3,492 why your rates are so high: Bruce Hucker bullied officials, against their original advice, to come up with a report recommending that all "contaminated" sites be rehabilitated, rather than their original advice to only rehabilitate high-risk areas used by children (kindergarten playgrounds, etc). All at ratepayers' cost.

  2. I was alway told to wash new clothes.

    More old wive tales provew to be on the money...

  3. No way PC - surely councils have nothing but the public's best interests at heart???

  4. Now that the rules have changed, I look forward to my personal letter from Mayor Bob over at Waitakere when he removes the contamination tag from the LIM report for my ex vineyard property.

    Just like owners were notified when the tag was applied.

    Tui time...


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