TCS Daily

How Swede It Is

By Roger Bate - March 26, 2002 12:00 AM

Sweden is synonymous with greenness. As Europe's eco-leaders, the Swedes have driven first their own, and then the EU policies on environmental matters. Every month a steady stream of delegations from other nations arrive in Stockholm to learn more about the Swedish model for environmental protection.

In the 1970s and early 1980s Sweden was rightly envied for its effective environmental policies based on scientifically sound principles. Unfortunately, in the last 15 years balanced policy has given way to a nonscientific and alarmist risk management, especially in the field of chemicals control. Such activity has annoyed many Swedish scientists, and one, Robert Nilsson, has had the courage to voice his objections - unfortunately he has been subject to verbal assaults from numerous environmentalists, inside and outside of government. It appears that freedom of politically incorrect speech in Sweden comes at a significant price.

Nilsson is a senior scientist at the Swedish Chemical Inspectorate (KEMI -- similar to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), as well as professor of toxicology at the University of Stockholm and an advisor to numerous expert committees around the world. Professor Nilsson recently spoke at several events in Washington, D.C. to Capitol Hill staffers, media and think tank experts on the dangers of illogical regulation and excess precaution. He was particularly concerned that Massachusetts and San Francisco seemed to be considering following Swedish legislative action based on the precautionary principle.

As Nilsson put it, "Goaded on by yammering environmental fundamentalists in combination with strong anti-industry sentiment in the vast Swedish public sector and a small chemical industry, there has been little incentive for restraining over-zealous regulators. Nurtured by a widespread distrust in experts, it is perhaps not surprising that Greenpeace often seems to have more influence on the Swedish Ministry of Environment than has the Royal Swedish National Academy of Sciences... It would be tragic if America followed this approach."

The result has been widespread Swedish "chemophobia," which is now bolstered by the precautionary principle. At first glance this 'principle' seems appealing, since it argues for caution and safety. But it is the antithesis of science, playing into the hands of scaremongers who can claim that the possibility of harm from a substance should be enough to banish it.

The principle demands that the developers of technologies show they are safe - a scientific impossibility; one can only show something is harmful, or that it isn't harmful so far, not that it never will be. Unfortunately, Sweden started toward this illogical approach with legislation in 1969. Initially the statutes were interpreted as just requiring greater scientific testing. But today the Swedish Government has become more extreme whereby almost any chemical product that fulfils certain toxicity criteria can be subjected to a ban or severe restriction, irrespective of the actual or projected level of risk.

For example, the Swedish government's legal commentary to the new environmental law states: "When a car owner is going to wash and clean his car and buys a detergent for this purpose in a gasoline station, he must select a product that causes as little harm to the environment as possible, provided that it cleans his car." When making this assessment, the poor car owner "must apply the precautionary principle in such a way that it takes not only factual risk into account, but also of the (potential) risk." Apart from insurmountable enforcement problems, any prosecution would inevitably be farcical.

Another example of a good idea taken to ridiculous extremes is the effort to remove heavy metals from the environment. Swedish blood lead levels have steadily decreased over the past 20 years mainly as a result of the phasing out of leaded gasoline. Levels in children are now similar to those found in totally unpolluted regions, like the Himalayas. Still, the Swedish regulators are resolutely determined to phase out items made of lead such as automobile batteries, sinks used for fishing, keels for sail boats, etc. In June last year, the Swedish government notified its intent to ban the use of lead in shot and buckshot. Bullet ammunition containing lead may only be permitted on shooting ranges under the condition that efficient retrieval of the used bullets can be guaranteed. This ban covers all Olympic competitions as well as all military purposes. Similar intentions have also been publicized with respect to all uses of cadmium, including recyclable accumulators.

Applying such regulation in America would stifle innovation, prompting Swedish levels of unemployment, increasing those out of work by over two million Americans. And it was concern about this kind of legislation -- based upon poorly applied science -- that led Professor Nilsson to make his recent speeches. Not surprisingly word of his activities was reported unfavorably in the Swedish media.

It will be tragic if critics such as Dr. Nilsson, are silenced by hostile media reaction. For the outcome is not merely a matter of principle. Unless the Swedish folly with misuse of science and precaution is exposed, other countries may follow down its path. But when any nation contemplates the general introduction of a principle that - depending on its manner of implementation - could adversely affect innovation and threaten the development of technology, jobs and progress, it would be highly appropriate to consider the efficacy of the principle.

Roger Bate is Director of the International Policy Network in Washington D.C.

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