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New Scientist 8 April 1971 - Letters Page

Safety from sewage

Sir,—Dr Kit Pedler was unfortunate in his choice of an illustration of the sort of work which his private Doomwatch might undertake (“Doomwatch Incarnate” 18 March. p 622). His knowledge of the background is restricted and his statement incorrect.
The MRC report of 1959 on sewage disposal was prepared under the distinguished chairmanship of Dr Brendan Moore and its members included scientists better qualified than Dr Pedler in this branch of medicine, The report included extensive evidence for the conclusions to which it came. It did not say that: “…there was no health hazard in bathing in crude sewage” Not even a reasonable layman who had taken the trouble to read the report could attribute such a statement to it.
In any ease Dr Pedler is out of date. Some months ago the report of the Jeger Working Party on Sewage Disposal, of which we were members, was issued by the government (Taken for Granted, HMSO). Though this report largely upheld the opinions of the 1959 committee, it re-examined the evidence and recommended a series of safeguards for the disposal of sewage to the sea. It does not, apparently trouble Dr Pedler that inland towns dump very large quantities of sludge in coastal waters, nor does he seem to realise that the effluent from a sewage works, which would be put in the sea anyhow, may still contain large numbers of pathogenic micro-organisms. For safety’s sake, this should be expensively piped out to sea for a distance determined by local conditions.
If the supply of money were illimitable for public purposes, any fool could improve safety standards. What is needed is a cost/benefit analysis. To equip every seaside town with full treatment works would cost many, many millions of pounds. There is not a scintilla of evidence that such expenditure, as against properly sited outfalls of crude sewage, would save a single human life. The same money spent on hospitals or roads would save many hundreds, or probably thousands. Heaven preserve us from self-appointed guardians who cash in on a wave of popular emotion to misdirect the use of scarce public resources.
 
Henry Brinton
Donald Payne 

Sussex

Scientists with a soul

Sir,—After a long period of what some suspected were near-desperate atheistic and materialistic-humanist undertones in New Scientist, not to mention the myopic naiveties of Dr Donald Gould’s pages, it is refreshing to read in New Scientist, of 18 March, of people like Professor Donald Mackay (“Where communication is all”, p 609) and Dr C.M. H. PedIer.
Well done, David Cohen, for appreciating the depth and value of Mackays Christian convictions, and mentioning Mackay’s beliefs in the complementary relationship between “science” and “religion”. Many scientists and engineers, like myself, are sick of hearing and reading the fatuous idea that “science” and “religion” must by definition be opposed ways of thinking and therefore incompatible, almost as though “science” was a new modern religion itself. I know of many scientists and engineers who are also awakened spiritually, not necessarily Christians even, and their lives and work are the richer for it: their sterile materialistic colleagues compare poorly.
Referring to Kit Pedler, no doubt some would class him as too way-out to be taken seriously, but nevertheless Graham Chedd’s portrayal suggests a man of considerable intellect and character, a scientist who is alive as a person, who can see far beyond the end of his microscope and further can care about what he sees. I believe Pedler has put his finger on one of the main causes of the current distaste for science when he talks of its misapplication. Even if his Doomwatch proposal never succeeds in overcoming prejudice and apathy in establishing itself, Pedler will do a great service to science and technology, and to mankind, if he only manages to break open the barriers to allow, as Chedd says, “emotion and ordinary human feelings of aesthetics to enter the scientific arena”.
Pedler certainly won’t lack volunteers.

H. C. Burford
 Warwicks