23 April 2003
of the frying pan, into a fire
years ago, Americans wrapped their sandwiches in waxed paper, poured
their milk from glass bottles, wore rubberized coats when it rained,
drove cars made from steel and reheated dinner in an old pie tin
in the oven.
our sandwiches come in aluminum-plastic pockets, ready to be popped
in the microwave. Pizza boxes and French fry containers keep grease
off us with high-tech coatings. When it rains, we wear Gore-Tex,
which keeps the water out but lets our skin breathe.
cars are lighter, cheaper and more energy-efficient because they're
made from a dizzying array of metals and plastics. At night, we
pull dinner out of the refrigerator in plastic containers that can
go straight from freezer to microwave without cracking or burning.
there may be a price for all that convenience.
Last week the Environmental Protection Agency announced concerns
about a widely used chemical called perfluorinated acid. Tests in
rats have shown reduced fetal weight of pups, delays in maturation
and kidney problems — and 92% of Americans tested had trace
amounts of it in their blood. That's because so-called PFOA or its
byproducts are used in the manufacturing process for Teflon and
Gore-Tex and can be released as the original Scotchguard and Stainmaster
break down. PFOA also has other industrial uses.
* This month a paper in the journal Current Biology reported that
a commonly used plastic ingredient called bisphenol A caused abnormal
pregnancies in mice and might cause reproductive problems in people.
* Last year a Swedish study found that a flame retardant used in
TV sets, computer circuit boards and casings, foams and fabric called
polybrominated diphenyl ether, or PBDE, is rapidly accumulating
in human breast milk. The chemical is thought to cause thyroid cancer
and possibly neurodevelopmental problems in test animals.
are by no means the first examples of wondrous new technologies
we've taken and run with, only to find out years later that we've
unwittingly harmed ourselves and our world.
pesticide DDT was touted as revolutionary in the 1940s before it
became apparent that it caused the eggshells of predatory birds
like the bald eagle to thin, lowering their numbers dramatically.
Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, were prized for their chemical stability
until scientists discovered they eroded the ozone layer. Polychlorinated
biphenyls, or PCBs, were the darling of manufacturers until their
toxicity became apparent.
the dawn of the 21st century, the question many are asking is whether
the convenience we gain from all these new materials is worth the
pain they may cause us and whether we need stronger testing rules
to avert environmental catastrophes.
hard for people to get their minds around the fact that there's
something like 70,000 chemicals in commercial production and about
10% of them (in quantities of) more than 1 million pounds a year,"
says Edward Groth, a senior scientist with Consumers Union. "And
the sad fact is we don't know anything about the toxicity or environmental
effects of most of them."
already are "part of an unregulated experiment that allows
toxic chemicals to bioaccumulate in their bodies," says Nena
Baker, author of a forthcoming book on the accumulation of industrial
pollutants in our bodies.
believes it's fair for the public to demand information about what
the chemicals in our environment might be doing to us. Testing isn't
"horrifically expensive," she says. "But the sad
part is it's being driven after the fact. The burden is on science
to say something is harmful before you can go back and get a better
picture of the costs and the effects. It's not to say that there
aren't terrific benefits. But do we really want to continue in the
way that public policy has unfolded in this country, which is basically
that everybody is a guinea pig?"
how to deal with these issues is unclear. There are two differing
attitudes about how new technology should be evaluated. Historically
in this country we've applied a risk-benefit analysis — do
the potential benefits of the technology outweigh the potential
risks? Most businesses evaluate their products on this basis.
advocates, environmentalists and the European community, however,
are turning toward something called the precautionary principle.
This is based on a German legal notion of the Vorsorgeprinzip, literally
the "forecaring principle." It started in Germany when
laws were enacted to save forests by reducing the power plant emissions
that cause acid rain.
safe than sorry
was a precaution because at the time there wasn't 100% scientific
certainty that power plant emissions were causing acid rain. That
concept has since been embraced by many in the environmental movement
and was defined at a major conference in 1998 as: "When an
activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment,
precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect
relationships are not fully established scientifically."
everyday language: Better safe than sorry.
about avoiding the 'whoops' factor," says Carolyn Raffensperger,
executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network.
chemical giant DuPont, there's concern that such a regulatory system
would be costly and complicated. "We've been able to accomplish
a great deal of work on the hazards of chemicals under a voluntary
framework," says Ed Mongan, director of energy and environment.
certainly believe that a precautionary approach is prudent,"
Mongan says, "but some of the precautionary principles that
are coming out of Europe and elsewhere do have the potential to
precautionary principle doesn't mean we have to go back to living
in the Stone Age, says Raffensperger. But it does mean that we have
to watch for indications of trouble provided by the chemicals themselves.
the chemicals show themselves to be really mobile in the environment
and are showing up in places they don't belong, then we should probably
pay a lot more attention, and a lot faster," she says.
it's not impossible. Europe has already embraced it. Draft legislation
will soon be released by the European Union to require that over
the next 11 years all chemicals be treated like new ones and be
required to undergo safety testing.
only that, but those chemicals of highest concern because of their
environmental infiltration, reproductive toxicity or carcinogenicity
will be treated like drugs, meaning the system will presume they're
dangerous and require applications for their use. The rules, if
approved, would go into effect in 2005.
so much bigger than anything we could conceive of in the U.S.,"
says Joel Tickner, an environmental scientist at the University
it also comes out of a very different cultural experience. Europe
is much less trusting of the people overseeing new technologies.
excellent example of this trust issue is the case of genetically
modified food. As a nation, we've said it's probably safe unless
we find out otherwise. Europeans, applying the precautionary principle,
say if you can't prove it's safe, it's probably dangerous.
consumers by and large believe the government is working to make
sure our food is safe to eat.
so in Europe. In the debacle of mad cow disease, it came out that
governments were aware of the danger long before they warned the
public. Add to that an ill-handled case of dioxin in animal feed
and then foot-and-mouth disease and you have, in the words of Michael
Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and
Biotechnology, "a complete collapse in confidence."
a time when people don't trust the experts, how do you make these
decisions? The precautionary principle is an acknowledgement that
you can't," he says. "They're saying that since they can't
judge the acceptability of risk on behalf of their citizens, they're
going to essentially say that no or very little risk is acceptable."
even in a political climate where it might be possible to judge
acceptable risk, scientists are quick to point out that it's impossible
to prove that anything is 100% safe.
a rational approach would be to use science to arrive at an understanding
of how a new technology or chemistry will work, says Harvey Glick,
director for scientific affairs at Monsanto, a company with much
to lose if this precautionary principle takes hold. Monsanto has
pinned its fortunes for the coming century on biotechnology in agriculture.
real risk to society is to not develop technology that can deliver
real benefits to society. It's important to understand the magnitude
of risk and then marry that with the societal benefits that may
accrue," Glick says.
the truth is that these questions don't really have hard-and-fast
answers, Rodemeyer says. We assume there's a scientific answer and
there isn't. "What level of risk is acceptable is ultimately
a policy question, and yet we keep asking our scientists to answer
it — and they can't."