In the face of every toxic threat that humans have yet created, here is a realization that is equally optimistic and discouraging: humans needn't fear science; but we should be terrified by the lies we tell ourselves about the good and bad things that human "mastery" of science can bring.
This point struck me as I was reading Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie's excellent book, Slow Death by Rubber Duck. As the lighthearted title suggests, this is a jaunty walk through the horrors of chemical poisoning -- a very personal voyage of discovery by the authors, who actually arranged for themselves typical exposures to the kinds of cancer-causing chemicals that all of us might run into on any particular day.
Their conclusion (minor): risks lurk around every corner. Their conclusion (major): Our failure to recognize and regulate those risks is not based on a lack of knowledge. It's based on a high degree of societal recklessness that flows directly from leaving the chemical salespeople in charge of risk management. The chemical and pharmacological industries' profit-driven public relations is trumping our efforts to make prudent judgments about our health and safety.
As regular readers of my columns will know, this is certainly the case in the fossil fuel/climate change discussion. Although we know the risks of a warming world - although the science is clear and the physics quite simple - a dedicated group of people have fought to instill doubt, arguing that climate change isn't happening, isn't our fault or isn't going to be a bad thing.
For example, the coal company coalition, the Western Fuels Association, launched a campaign in the early 1990s to convince people that pouring greenhouse gases into the air will be good for the world because plants rely on CO2 for energy.
But as every alcoholic knows, there are serious risks to getting too much of a good thing. Smith and Lourie contemplate this truth by quoting the wisdom of the 16th century philosopher and physician Paracelsus, who said:
"All things are poison and nothing is without poison, only the dose permits something not to be poisonous."
As Lourie and Smith demonstrate, we're often getting too much of a good thing - and there are some things out there that are so bad for humans that there is no "safe" level of exposure - no point at which they are NOT a poison.
Notwithstanding, there are always people around telling us that we shouldn't pay too much attention to risk. Smith and Lourie quote Gideon Forman, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Physicians, who is particularly critical of PR campaigns to minimize risk. In reference to the role that chemical companies play in the debate over the toxicity of pesticides, Forman says:
"Much of it is based on the sort of thinking that was used by the tobacco lobby. The first thing they say is that there is no science connecting cigarettes to cancer or pesticides to cancer. And then the whole thrust of what the industry does is to place doubts in the minds of legislators. So industry doesn't have to prove anything. They just have to raise doubt and that was exactly their game plan with tobacco."
But, as Death by Duck documents, the industry types do more than push a particular argument. They sponsor high-tone organizations like the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, the founding director of which was Dr. John Graham, who George W. Bush rewarded in 2001 with an appointment as head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Graham, an individual on whom Americans were counting for good advice as a research leader and sage practice as a bureaucrat, was guest speaker at a conference that Rick Smith attended in the late 1990s. Graham "talked about the potential benefits of global warming and how noxious emissions from coal plants may be good for our farms. He also suggested that too little research has been done on the potential health benefits of dioxin, one of the world's most notoriously deadly substances.
People like Graham are supposed to be the gatekeepers. They're the ones who we rely upon to look after our interests. When you grab an baby bottle off the shelf and use it to feed your infant, you want to believe that responsible people -- in industry as well as in government -- are using the precautionary principle as a way of saving us from risk. You don't want to think that you fed all your children a dangerous organic compound called Bisphenal A.
If that's how you think, Smith and Lourie have depressing news. On too many issues, it seems that industry and government have failed dramatically in fulfilling this responsibility. But if you fear that Death by Duck will be a downer, take heart. The authors have kept their own optimism and have crafted a final chapter full of good advice for avoiding the threats of our toxic day-to-day.
But they also urge people to get involved -- to push government to be more responsible in its regulatory duties. Nobody begrudges the taxes they pay for services they actually want. But everyone resents the missing billions that were spent NOT protecting us from threats like DDT -- which, even when this image ran in a 1947 advertising campaign, was already drawing attention as a potentially harmful chemical. We deserve better, but we will only get it if we demand it.
If you doubt that, read Slow Death by Rubber Duck. It will inspire you.
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