Chemical reactions

The heightened concern about chemicals promotes myth-making over rational science.

Joe Kaplinsky

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Topics Politics

Industry, the public and the state are caught up in a spiral of rising concern over the regulation of chemicals. But what is this concern based on, and what will be its consequence?

The current wave of regulation shows the precautionary principle in action. A recent White Paper from the European Commission, titled Strategy For A Future Chemicals Policy, proposes a system with the acronym REACH: Registration, Evaluation, and Authorisation of Chemicals. The essential point of this new system is that, while in the past restrictions have only applied where it has been shown that there is a danger, now all chemicals will have to be certified as safe before use (1).

The idea is to ‘reverse the burden of proof’ so that chemicals are presumed dangerous until proven safe (2).

Strategy For A Future Chemicals Policy was first published in 2001, but the Commission will most likely put final proposals to the European Parliament towards the end of this year. Given the size of the chemical industry, and the fact that the new regulations will apply to chemicals (that is, all materials) in consumer goods, the new policy will have significant consequences. It has attracted much criticism, both in Europe and the USA, where it is widely misunderstood as motivated by protectionism. In the UK, reports evaluating the White Paper have been produced by both the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP), and the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union (3).

The European Commission cites public concern as a key motivation for more regulation. This has also been a reason for enthusiasm by business, eager to reassure customers. But insofar as regulation is based on public concern, there is little evidence to suggest that such concern is based on worsening health problems.

Today’s worries about chemicals are an inverted reflection of the real progress that has taken place. We worry about long-term effects of chemicals because the short-term effects are understood. We worry about the effects of ‘cocktails’ of chemicals, because taken individually their effects are under control. We worry about low dose effects because large scale emissions are falling back. We worry about the rarer cancers that are on the increase because cancers overall are falling. Come to that, we worry about diseases of old age because we live longer than before.

So instead of citing real problems, the White Paper highlights ‘lack of knowledge’ as a concern (4). But even here, what we do know suggests that chemicals are not so toxic as the Commission fears.

‘Endocrine disruptors’ are the example most often used by green campaigners, and feature prominently in the White Paper. The worry is that chemicals will interfere with the body’s hormones. In particular, the fear is that children’s sexual development will be disrupted. As yet there is little evidence that this problem is possible, and none that it is real. So instead, campaigners point to the mere fact that chemicals interact with hormones as a cause for concern.

But that is absurd. Any chemical that interacts with your body will likely have some effect on the endocrine system. When we are put under pressure the ‘fight or flight’ reaction floods our bodies with the hormone adrenaline . Should stress now count as an ‘endocrine disruptor’?

Even an effect on children’s development is not necessarily a reason to worry. It is often suggested that endocrine disruptors might change the onset of puberty. But the biggest influence bringing forward the onset of puberty has been improved nutrition. The chemical makeup of better food obviously has a complex effect on endocrines. But overall it brings a gain, not a problem.

The economic costs of implementing the new testing regime will be high. They go far beyond simple monetary costs or bureaucratic hold-ups in approval of licences. The White Paper will require a much closer collaboration between suppliers of chemicals and their customers who manufacture products. Suppliers will need to collect information on the uses to which customers are putting their products in order to get approval. Customers will need to draw a mountain of safety data from suppliers in order to ensure that end consumers’ ‘right to know’ is not violated.

These developments are antithetical to competition. There is already a trend towards cooperation, which new regulation will formalise. Many companies have also complained that they will be forced to reveal trade secrets upon which they rely.

Most damaging, however, will be the reorientation of innovation around the goal of eliminating ‘hazardous’ chemicals.

The proposals in the White Paper go even further than REACH. Because testing will never identify all problems, it promotes the substitution of hazardous chemicals by safer ones: a goal that it repeatedly calls ‘an important objective’. Endorsing the EC approach, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution explains: ‘A sensible approach to this uncertainty would be one of precaution – to reduce the hazard wherever we have an opportunity to do so.’ (5)

To understand the point, we need to understand the technical distinction between hazard and risk. While risk asks whether something is likely to cause harm, hazard asks whether it is possible. In this sense, lots of things are hazardous without being risky. Flying in an aeroplane is hazardous, in that you may be killed in a crash. But the risk of this is usually low.

Applied to chemical regulation, the idea of minimising hazard is that we should not assume that dangerous chemicals can be used safely. If a chemical is capable of causing damage at high doses or taken internally, say, then it constitutes a hazard. If we were concerned just to manage risk we might be happy to say that we will only be exposed at low doses, or that used properly the chemical will not be taken internally. But precautionary hazard management demands more: if a chemical is capable of causing harm, it should be eliminated.

The objective of hazard management is detached from reality. Vitamin A is essential for life. But taken by a pregnant woman at levels five times higher than the essential minimum, it can cause abnormalities in the eyes of an unborn child. Taking in too much water can have deadly effects by diluting sodium in the blood. Clearly, then, all chemicals are hazardous. But the high dose effects seen in lab animals are more like water imbalance than a good model for everyday exposures to chemicals.

Chemicals are declared hazardous on the basis of the damaging effects they cause when fed to lab animals at very high doses. But the effects that are seen will often be exceptional, like the imbalance caused by taking in too much water. They need not imply that everyday exposures to chemicals at lower levels are truly hazardous.

A rise in disorders like Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) is another reason put forward for tougher chemicals regulation. But here, too, precaution will make things worse.

Sufferers from MCS have a wide range of symptoms. Journalist Michael Fumento quotes one newsletter claiming that symptoms include: ‘watery or dry eyes, double vision, sneezing, nasal congestion, sinusitis, tinnitus, ear pain, dizziness, vertigo, coughing, bronchitis, difficulty breathing, difficulty swallowing, asthma, anaphylaxis, headaches, migraine, seizures, fatigue, confusion, disorientation, incoherence, short-term memory loss, inability to concentrate, nausea, lethargy, anxiety, irritability, depression, mood swings, restlessness, rashes, hives, eczema, flushing, muscle and joint pain, muscle weakness, irregular heartbeat, hypertension, swollen lymph glands and more.’ (6)

MCS sufferers attribute their problems to chemical exposure, most often perfumes or the ink in printed products. But their all-too-real symptoms have more to do with pyschology than chemicals. In double-blind tests, patients have proved just as sensitive to placebos as to chemical extracts.

However, far from being ‘all in the mind’, disorders like MCS are, at least partly, ‘in society’. Using examples like Sweden, where incidence of MCS has risen along with a high-profile increase in chemical regulation, Bill Durodié explains that ‘official recognition of, and responses to, perceived problems – either through advocacy groups, public officials, or the media – provide confirming models through which people understand and articulate their anxieties and often become the driver of real problems’. That is to say, the culture of precaution could make us ill (7).

The rise of precaution cannot be explained as a rational response to the risks posed by chemicals. So how can it be explained? The RCEP’s approach shows up some of the broader social prejudices at work. Because no chemical can be proven safe, it recommends that, where possible, we give up chemicals entirely.

Organic farming, suggests the RCEP, is one way forward. But organic produce is no safer than the conventional kind, and certainly doesn’t eliminate the use of chemicals. This is really just a preference for the supposedly ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’ over industrial, scientifically informed farming (8).

It rather seems that, like other state bodies, the RCEP is acutely aware of the tenuous legitimacy held by government today. It places great emphasis on the need to connect with the public – and it has chosen to do this by constructing a myth that we are being poisoned by synthetic chemicals. But myths are dangerous. As history shows us, the lies and falsehoods embodied in myths, religions and superstitions have had devastating consequences for the societies that lived by them.

At a conference concluding consultation on REACH, held in Brussels on 11 July 2003, Margot Wallström, European Commissioner responsible for the environment, gave the opening address – demonstrating clearly the shift from science to myth. Filled with anecdote, the address ended with ‘a quote from a young Rumanian boy who, earlier this year, attended a conference on children’s views of Europe’s future…. He said: “Protect the world so that I, a child of our times, can see the things you saw when you were children. Don’t take away from me the wonders of the Earth!” He finished by pleading: “Take care of my health and my education so that I can teach my children to preserve the environment.”’ (9)

This kind of presentation invites an emotional, rather than a rational, response. It does not invite us to participate as citizens in democratic debate. Rather it works to exclude real debate through a form of emotional correctness. This is how ‘public values’ are being incorporated into policy.

Wallström is deluding herself if she believes that the comments she quotes are anything other than a projection of the views of the conference organisers. But she has nothing more ‘real’ to quote. So long as citizens are recast as frightened children in need of protection, there will be no real public participation. Democracies cannot be built on myths, which demand belief instead of criticism.

The rise of science has been a powerful force, demolishing the old myths and erecting in their place a true understanding of the world. By replacing science with ‘lack of knowledge’ as the basis upon which decisions are made, the precautionary principle undermines the role of reason in society.

We tend to take for granted the benefits of new materials and chemicals. To take a random selection: mobile phones, new styles of clothing, and improved transport that takes us on holiday. They have also made possible less everyday creations, like Frank Ghery’s architechture, or a new generation of space planes. But the benefits cannot be computed simply by adding up such examples.

First, industrial chemistry exists in a close relationship to the pure pursuit of knowledge. Pure science can never be reduced or subordinated to the applied. But our understanding of the natural has always followed on from our ability to synthesise the artificial. When Friedrich Wöhler first artificially synthesised an organic molecule, urea, in 1828, it opened a door to understanding biology. It is not possible to scale back chemistry without reducing our appreciation of the natural world.

Second, taken together, technical advances made possible by chemistry add up to more than the sum of their parts. By allowing people to do more with less they free up human energy. This space for reflection creates the possibility of social innovation, finding new ways to live together and make best use of new technologies.

Finally, the capacity of chemists to solve practical problems is a powerful illustration of the power of reason. Social problems are not scientific ones. But they are susceptible to rational approach. Confidence in reason is in short supply today, with many problems exacerbated by intolerance and mysticism. A society that cannot see the benefits of reason even in the narrow scientific sphere is unlikely to realise its broader possibilities.

A society built on a mythical consensus seems easier to achieve, but it is much more fragile than one built on truth. It requires constant shoring up and evasion of difficult questions. Tragically, the chemical myth requires that we cripple ourselves, making ourselves ill with worry.

It is time to turn our backs on the chemicals myth and start building a better future.

Joe Kaplinsky is a patent and technology analyst.

(1) Strategy for a Future Chemicals Policy (.pdf 165 KB), Commission of the European Communities, 27 February 2001. Also see the Internet Consultation on Draft Chemicals Legislation section of the European Commission website

(2) Opening address on European environment and health strategy, Stakeholders conference on European Environment and Health Strategy, Margot Wallström, 11 July 2003. Also see Strategy for a Future Chemicals Policy (.pdf 165 KB), Commission of the European Communities, 27 February 2001, p8

(3) See the Long-term effects of chemicals in the environment section of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution website; Chemicals in Products: Safeguarding the Environment and Human Health (.pdf 1.48 MB), twenty-fourth report, Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, June 2003; Reducing the Risk: Regulating Industrial Chamicals, thirteenth report, House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union, 12 February 2002

(4) Strategy for a Future Chemicals Policy (.pdf 165 KB), Commission of the European Communities, 27 February 2001, p5

(5) Strategy for a Future Chemicals Policy (.pdf 165 KB), Commission of the European Communities, 27 February 2001, p5, 8; Chemicals in Products: Safeguarding the Environment and Human Health (.pdf 1.48 MB), twenty-fourth report, Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, June 2003, p163

(6) Scents and senselessness, Michael Fumento, American Spectator, April 2000

(7) ‘The True Cost of Precautionary Chemicals Regulation’, Bill Durodié, Risk Analysis, vol 23, No 2, 2003, p394

(8) Chemicals in Products: Safeguarding the Environment and Human Health (.pdf 1.48 MB), twenty-fourth report, Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, June 2003, p131

(9) Opening address on European environment and health strategy, Stakeholders conference on European Environment and Health Strategy, Margot Wallström, 11 July 2003

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