A Brief Note on Word Usage in Environmental Reporting
Environmental reporting is one subgroup of journalism that's especially prone to jargon because it relies on the three major purveyors of jargon - scientists, bureaucrats, and lawyers - as the beat's main sources. All those stories on PCBs and DDT and PBDEs and TMDLs begin to look like a bowl of alphabet soup, only less appetizing. But what's even worse than a reporter who uses technical words is a reporter who uses them incorrectly.
Specifically, I've noticed a tendency for newspapers to misuse the word "toxin" in environmental stories. They seem to be under the impression that "toxin" is synonymous with "poison." It is not. Webster's defines a toxin as "a poisonous substance that is a specific product of the metabolic activities of a living organism and is usually very unstable, notably toxic when introduced into the tissues, and typically capable of inducing antibody formation."
Thus, toxins are things like snake venom, scorpion venom, bee venom, etc., not artificially produced chemicals like pesticides and flame retardants. This headline for a September 2004 story from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer - "Study shows toxin in breast milk" - is an example of what not to do because the article is referring to a study showing that PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) were found in breast milk and PBDE is a toxic substance, not a toxin.
So please folks, let's try to improve the accuracy of our words and stop the sloppy usage of "toxin." Thank you.