Volume 86 Issue 11 | p. 5 | Editor's Page
Issue Date: March 17, 2008

Sensory Overload

Department: Editor's Page

LONGTIME ACS MEMBER Ted Selover recently sent me a letter accompanied by a copy of an op-ed piece from the Jan. 30, 2008, New York Times.

"Enclosed you will find a copy of an article in NYT ...with comments on following days re the most ridiculous idea ever proposed by politicians," Selover wrote. "It has to do with licensing all sensors. I went through the 1/28/08 C&EN issue and found 8 pp with sensor articles. I thought you might want to address the issue. ... Hope you get a chuckle out of this."

I read the op-ed piece with growing disbelief. It was written by Steven Chillrud, Greg O'Mullan, and Wade McGillis, three research scientists at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.

"At the suggestion of the federal Department of Homeland Security," they write, "New York City Council members have drafted legislation requiring anyone who has or uses a detector that measures chemical, biological, or radioactive agents to get a license from the Police Department.

"The purpose of the bill is to reduce unwarranted anxiety and damage from false alarms of terrorist attacks. Proponents say police officers need to know where detectors are and make sure they're reliable. But the bill, which appears to be the first of its kind in the country and a model for other cities, could stifle the collection of environmental information vital to the public good."

You have got to be kidding, I thought. We cannot have become this paranoid, can we?

Well, yes, we can.

I found the proposed legislation on the city council's website. Section 1, Legislative purposes, reads, in part: "The Council recognizes the need to protect the citizens of New York City from possible terrorist attacks involving chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear devices or weapons. As part of this effort, the Council understands the importance of the deployment of certain instruments designed to detect the presence of certain chemicals, biological agents, and radiation in the environment. While the proliferation of these capabilities may represent a positive development in furthering public safety, such instruments should be deployed and operated only with the knowledge of the Police Department and other appropriate City agencies. Moreover, the City has an interest in the reliability and effectiveness of these instruments so that their deployment will not cause excessive false alarms and unwarranted anxiety that a large-scale public emergency is occurring."

If the legislation had been drafted in such a way that it required only detectors designed to detect biological, chemical, or radiological warfare agents and sound an alarm in their presence to be subject to licensing, it might make sense. But that's definitely not the way it was drafted.

For example, the legislation defines a "biological agent" as "any micro-organism, including bacteria and viruses, or structural components or products of such micro-organisms, including toxins, whether engineered or naturally-occurring, that are capable of causing death, disease or other biological malfunction in a living organism, deterioration or poisoning of food or water, or deleterious alteration of the environment." And it defines a "biological detector" as "an instrument used for the purpose of monitoring the release or presence of one or more biological agents."

That's pretty sweeping, and the definitions of "chemical agent" and "chemical detector" are just as broad. The legislation would apply to detectors used by scientists, educators, environmentalists, and others to monitor myriad chemicals and biological agents for a wide variety of reasons.

One could interpret this as simple bureaucratic overkill that could be addressed by careful attention to the bill's definitions. Or one could assign a less charitable motive, as most of the people who posted comments to the op-ed piece did. One wrote, for example, "Judging by the history of this Administration, Homeland Security is probably pushing this legislation not to prevent 'false positives' but to suppress knowledge of environmental, chemical or other hazards that the public has a right to know about."

Whatever the motive, it is legislation that badly needs to be revisited before it becomes law in New York City—or anywhere else.

Thanks for reading.

 

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

 

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