A question of fear, not chemistry

‘Many of the concerns about chemicals can best be described as conclusions in search of data.’

On 24 September 2004, the Council of the European Union permanently banned a family of organic chemicals, known as phthalates, from use in toys and childcare items. This ‘political agreement’ finally brought to an end five years of debate about the toxicity of these compounds. During that time, the European Commission maintained a rolling series of temporary emergency bans, despite the scientific research evidence that consistently and increasingly opposed this official view.

Banning phthalates, a family of organic compounds used to soften PVC, appears unexceptional in its own terms. After concerns had been raised as to their possible toxicological impact upon infants, it perhaps seems reasonable to pursue a course of caution and further research. Phthalates’ removal from the marketplace is unlikely to generate much immediate economic pain, even for those companies that produced them.

But concerns about phthalates reflected a growing cautionary climate and helped pave the way for a new European chemicals regulation strategy – REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals). Now, thousands of chemicals that have been in regular use for over 20 years have to face a battery of toxicological tests, despite our having billions of hours of exposure data as to the consequences of their use.

Again, it may seem sensible to make such testing mandatory. It could surprise some people to find out that chemicals in use prior to 1981 are unlikely to have been subjected to toxicity and carcinogenicity tests. But the tests are unlikely to resolve matters.

The tests have been described as both unfeasible and unnecessary by the UK Medical Research Council Institute for Environment and Health. This is because – as with phthalates before them – the tests are to be performed on a precautionary basis. There is no evidence of any harm. Rather, it is our contemporary culture that demands constant reassurance at any cost that may be the most harmful. REACH will require vast resources, not least in terms of animal testing, but it will be unable to address all possible concerns, and it will drive consumer fears rather than assuaging them for a period in excess of 50 years.

It is important to understand these developments as shaped more by political context than scientific evidence. In the early 1990s, the European Commission and its scientific services went through major physical and cultural reorganisations in the aftermath of the BSE (‘mad cow disease’) debacle. A new cautionary outlook was adopted which effectively advocated pre-emptive strikes in situations of uncertainty. This ‘precautionary principle’ required the use of worst-case scenarios in scientific decision-making.

These developments both reflected and amplified broader trends in society. A proclivity to speculate about what might be, now dominates over examination of what actually is. Caution requires extrapolating from uncorroborated or anecdotal evidence – just in case. This has allowed rumour and myth to abound and increasingly to shape our lives. Hence the growing calls to regulate, not just chemicals, but all manner of other products and activities, both new and old, from conkers to vaccines.

But the real driver behind our growing insecurities has more to do with the political disconnection that now dominates contemporary life. As ordinary people no longer form part of active networks as they did in the past, so their tolerance and trust in all forms of authority, whether political, corporate or scientific, has waned. Subjective impressions of reality go unmoderated and grow into all-consuming worldviews not open to reasoned interrogation.

This process has been facilitated by the political, corporate and scientific elites who, lacking any vision or direction of their own, have willingly repackaged themselves as societal risk-managers. Sensing their growing isolation from those they depend upon for authority, leaders now offer to protect us from our fears. An alienated and fearful public is the flipside of an isolated and purposeless elite.

Accordingly, the specifics of any particular issue are only a small part of what shapes the debate. Campaigners’ complaints about minute traces of persistent chemicals found inside their bodies are driven more by their sense of alienation from the decision-making process than by any real grasp of chemistry. They extrapolate from experiments upon rodents, which not only have different metabolisms, but which are also subjected to huge doses of chemicals for protracted periods of time, precisely to see the worst that might happen.

Many of the concerns, such as those regarding so-called ‘endocrine disrupting chemicals’, can best be described as conclusions in search of data. Despite the Royal Society report that notes that such chemicals are just as likely to be beneficial, and despite the evidence that there are millions of times as many of such substances in our foods as in any chemical we are likely to be exposed to, the decision to assume the worst now drives policy.

It is the authorities themselves that are in the vanguard of driving the agenda. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) may act as catalysts, but it is the European Commission, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and even many chemical producing companies themselves who, desperate not to lose face in relation to what they assume to be public opinion, are prepared to push through the new cautionary policies.

Far from stabilising matters and reassuring the public such actions will drive public concerns and also shape a far more unstable regulatory environment. Rather than challenging the public with the evidence, the new elite, lacking any purpose of its own, is happy to appear to provide protection by pandering to social fears.

Our obsession with preventing the unthinkable lends itself to distracting us from more likely sources of risk, thereby diverting social resources from more plausible sources of threat at the same time as alarming people needlessly. But the drive to be seen to be taking precautions now determines all. It has allowed groups to pose as champions of consumer welfare, of animals, the environment or future generations, despite their being unelected and unable to represent the dumb, the inanimate or the unborn.

By raising problems at a time when these are in decline, and by positing widespread tests that are neither desirable nor achievable, the authorities make matters worse rather than better. And by adopting politically expedient, yet ultimately intellectually cowardly policies, they display their ultimate contempt for those that they claim to be fighting for.

First published on spiked, 16 November 2004