Science by committee
Two leading scientists sent a private note to the head of the European Commission Directorate responsible for Health and Consumer Policy in November 1999. It expressed their 'very serious concern at the gross misuse' of scientific committee opinions to justify a commission decision to ban phthalates, an important, though little known, family of organic compounds.
In April 2000, at a meeting of the European Parliament Environment Committee, officials conceded that, while member states had previously introduced their own restrictions upon the manufacture or sale of products containing phthalates, none could point to any scientific evidence of their own to back up these decisions.
The phthalates controversy demonstrates the growing separation between science and policy making on many issues decided by Europe's committees. This gap was described by some Euro MPs in a letter dated 10 May 2000 to Commission president Romano Prodi as 'an apparent failing in the current structure for processing advice'.
Phthalates are softening agents added to hard polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl), to make products more malleable and versatile. They have been used for almost 50 years in products as common and diverse as blood bags, surgical gloves, tubing, toys, children's teethers, wire-coating, flooring and clothing. Substantial scientific evidence shows that exposure to such products 'does not even come close to a harmful level'. Yet in recent years, environmentalist and consumer activists have run a scare campaign claiming that phthalates could cause adverse health effects, including cancer and damage to the reproductive system. They have found a receptive hearing among politicians and officials who, still reeling in the aftermath of the European BSE crisis, tend to incline on the side of caution, almost regardless of the evidence.
The convergence of views between emotional campaigners and nervous authorities has exerted tremendous moral pressure on manufacturers and retailers, who have now been described as 'ecological gatekeepers'. One by one, they started voluntarily to withdraw their own products containing phthalates. Often, as with sportswear manufacturers Nike, they admitted to having done so simply as 'a marketing decision', in the face of bad publicity. Eventually, most recalcitrant businesses and governments gave way like a line of dominoes.
The campaign spread from toys to medical devices and from Europe to the USA. By the end of 1999 the European Commission finally decided officially to ban phthalate softeners from toys and childcare articles, leading Greenpeace to claim that 'establishment science' had found in their favour. But it was precisely this ban, and the proposal to endorse and extend it through a council directive, which prompted the unprecedented attack, mentioned above, by the leading scientists involved.
The commission seeks to extend the ban on phthalates in items 'intended' to be mouthed by children through the compulsory labelling of any items containing phthalates that 'could be' placed in the mouth. An official explained that they had done this to achieve a 'balance' of views. Since some people wanted to see all such products banned, while others believed the original ban went too far, labelling was proposed as compromise. But while such consensus-seeking may appeal to woolly-minded bureaucrats in the corridors of Brussels, it is totally unsuited to science. Either phthalates are toxic to humans at the doses they are exposed to, or they are not.
Expanding further on the 'precautionary' rationale for a ban, the official explained why the commission also sought to prevent the use of four phthalates whose properties, even by the EU's own exaggerated worst-case criteria, had been shown to give no 'cause for concern'. Recognising that these compounds are not even used in childcare articles, he nevertheless recommended a ban as a 'reasonable, proportionate measure'. Pursuing this logic to its extreme on 24 May 2000 the Environment Committee adopted an amendment proposing to extend the ban to all phthalate plasticisers. This will be the first time that an entire class of chemicals has been banned without supporting evidence of any hazard, exposure or even use.
All of this reveals a more profound confusion about the role of science in a democracy. While scientific advice helps to inform decision-making, science itself is not a democratic process. The lay public's view simply cannot be equated to that of laboratory scientists with many years of professional experience. However, politicians and officials will now go out of their way to show that they take 'consumer concerns', as articulated by a handful of vociferous lobby groups, as seriously as the advice of scientists.
The increasing use of committees for scientific decision-making in Europe has led scientists themselves to identify 'the problem posed by the sometimes enormous amount of data' sent to these committees by interested parties (cited in committee minutes). Selecting which data the committee gets to see is done by a secretariat which often has little scientific expertise. This allows for a wilful shaping of the agenda so that materials which don't highlight perceived political priorities, such as restoring 'consumer confidence', get passed over. There is also evidence of confused discussion around different versions of the same report, and delays as committees become inundated with requests for opinions and decisions.
Recently, for instance, the commission has received a request for an opinion on Denmark's intention to ban the manufacture, import and sale of lead or any product containing lead. Banning a natural element on precautionary grounds is surely something that only a committee could ever dream of doing. Banning one which is widely used for our own protection in light bulbs, TV and computer screens and radiation shielding, is even more daft. As the Scientific Committee recognised, requests to ban other elements, such as Cadmium, are bound to follow.
Environmentalist and consumer lobby groups have evolved from fringe organisations to powerful mainstream bodies. With the wider decline in political participation, officials and politicians are keen to connect with such groups in order to establish some new form of legitimacy. However, while their concerns may be genuine, the activists' belief in the precautionary principle often leads them to present products as unsafe, regardless of the evidence. By encouraging public mistrust they breed passive cynicism rather than democratic accountability.
As the search for safety becomes an official obsession, things get more and more confused. In the UK, for example, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has conceded that the European Commission's proposals for labelling are not based on any scientific evidence. However, displaying a logic that Brussels would be proud of, the DTI concluded that rejecting labelling 'offers no identifiable health benefits'. Putting warning labels on harmless goods, just in case, seems unlikely to restore public trust in government or business. But it will do further damage to scientific credibility.
Industry, too, has been guilty of giving in to the panic-mongers. Business would like to see the establishment of a reliable testing procedure to determine the quantity of phthalate leaching out of PVC products. But this concedes to their detractors the crucial (and entirely unproven) point that phthalates are harmful in the first place. They should know that if you fight on your opponents' grounds, you are on a hiding to nothing.
The lesson of the European ban on phthalates is that these debates have little to do with phthalates at all. We are witnessing the explosion of an exaggerated consciousness of risk, combined with the collapse of trust in political, commercial and now scientific institutions. The resulting erosion of objectivity and reasoned argument, rather than the risk posed by everyday products, is the real threat to all of us.
Reproduced from Last Magazine, summer 2000