In April 1999, Water Keeper Alliance founder Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. wrote an anti-industrial farming screed for Newsweek called “I Don’t Like Green eggs and Ham.” Among his chief complaints against American hog farmers, Kennedy cited the emergence of Pfiesteria piscicida [fiss-TEER-ee-uh piss-ki-SEED-uh], a microorganism that he ominously called “a tiny predator.”
Pfiesteria, said Kennedy, “inflicts postulating lesions on fish whose flesh it dissolves with excreted toxins.” He claimed that “the cell from hell” killed “a billion [fish] in one 1991 incident” and contended that “[s]cientists strongly suspect that Pfiesteria causes brain damage and respiratory illness in humans who touch infected fish or water.” To bring the point home to Newsweek readers, Kennedy alleged the following: “Two years ago  Pfiesteria sickened dozens of people, including fisherman, swimmers and state workers.”
It appears now that Kennedy has green egg on his face, along with every other environmental scare group that has ever used the junk-science specter of Pfiesteria as a bludgeon against modern agriculture. In addition to the Water Keeper Alliance , these include the Sierra Club , Natural Resources Defense Council , Environmental Defense , and even the animal-rights front group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
Kennedy, in particular, has practically made a career out of frightening the public, and his arguments often balance precariously on the “facts” about Pfiesteria and the health of our nation’s waterways. In one Iowa stump speech earlier this year, Kennedy complained about Pfiesteria’s effects, claiming that “people get brain damage from stepping into the Neuse River. Even bridge workers who got wet, people who handle fish, come out with measurable brain damage. This is a science-fiction nightmare that this industry has imposed on the American people” [click here to watch the video]. Ten minutes later, Kennedy called the pork industry “a greater threat” to American liberty “than Osama bin Laden.”
The Pfiesteria hysteria officially began in 1990, when Dr. JoAnn Burkholder announced its existence and hinted that it was dangerous to both fish and humans. Burkholder and two colleagues followed up with a 1996 study claiming that Pfiesteria could exhibit 24 separate forms throughout its life-cycle, each with a different potential for toxicity. At the time, Burkholder pointed to a 1995 fish kill on North Carolina’s Neuse River as evidence that Pfiesteria (1) was produced by hog farm runoff, and (2) was singularly responsible for killing 10 million fish and making a 10-mile stretch of water unsafe for humans.
Now, says the New York Times, the other shoe has dropped and the latest research shows that Burkholder, and her varied activist cheerleaders, were dead wrong . Over the past two months, three separate studies published in the journals Nature , the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the Journal of Phycology have all challenged Burkholder’s scientific methods and credibility.
First, Dr. Wayne Litaker of the University of North Carolina argued in The Journal of Phycology that Burkholder’s 24-stage development cycle for Pfiesteria is all wet . Litaker’s research team was unable to find any Pfiesteria whose natural life-cycle stages turned toxic. The other two recent scientific contributions assert that there is no evidence that Pfiesteria is toxic in any form. And the leading expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says that “it has not been scientifically demonstrated that Pfiesteria piscicida produces toxins, or that the presence of the organism in water is a human health hazard.”
For those wondering where Kennedy got the idea that Pfiesteria was so harmful in the first place, consider that Water Keeper Alliance director Rick Dove has been making public hay about the issue since at least 1995. He frequently appears for photo-ops in hazmat suits on the banks of the Neuse River. And Dr. Burkholder was the keynote speaker at a June 1999 “Water Keeper Alliance Workshop” [see page 10 of her curriculum vitae ] held at the Pace University Environmental Litigation Clinic (where Kennedy has his day job ). The event was co-sponsored by the Natural Resources Defense Council, where Kennedy is a senior attorney .
As her propaganda ship takes on water, Dr. Burkholder’s colleagues seem eager to let her sink alone. Karen Steidinger of the Florida Marine Research Institute, originally a collaborator in Burkholder’s 1996 findings, has issued a statement distancing herself from the whole mess, and dropping the suggestion of scientific fraud squarely in Burkholder’s lap. Jeffery Shields, a co-author of this week’s Pfiesteria report in the journal Nature, told the Associated Press that the much-discussed fish kills are likely caused by a mold that is harmless to humans. When asked about Burkholder’s claims about toxic waters and dangers to human beings, Shields replied: “There was no toxin.” Similarly, the Reuters news wire says that the National Academy of Sciences report has concluded that Pfiesteria “do not produce any known poison.”
The New York Times did nothing to slow Burkholder’s descent yesterday. Times reporter Nicholas Wade placed the blame on her shoulders, noting that the Pfiesteria controversy erupted when Burkholder “declined to make her toxic strain of Pfiesteria widely available.” This has given the whole episode a taint reminiscent of widely-debunked claims about cold fusion in Utah over a decade ago.
Dr. Burkholder continues to defend her findings , mainly by pointing to agreeable research from Old Dominion University , which was published in the journal Harmful Algae. But in connecting these dots, the Richmond Times-Dispatch notes that Burkholder herself sits on the editorial advisory board of this young journal. So much for objectivity.
Environmental pressure groups have spent the better part of ten years using JoAnn Burkholder’s research as justification to heap abuse and disdain on livestock producers, and other industry living near rivers where Pfiesteria can be found. Perhaps now that Burkholder’s contribution to the Pfiesteria legend has been exposed, and the activists’ scientific house of cards is collapsing, the press and the public will think twice before swallowing the next crazy fish story that comes down the pike.