TCS Daily

'Lay Values'?

By Bill Durodii - September 24, 2003 12:00 AM

The European Commission is introducing new precautionary procedures for all chemicals produced in volumes greater than one ton per year. The new regulations are known as REACH, which stands for the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of CHemicals. They propose a schedule lasting until 2012 to complete tests on all existing, unregistered substances.


It may come as a surprise to hear that most chemicals in existence prior to 1981 that we are exposed to have never been subjected to toxicity and carcinogenicity tests in the same way as those produced since have. It may sound sensible to even things out. Indeed, some Commission officials justify the new regime as a necessary rationalization of existing legislation. However, the key questions that ought to be addressed by those who promote these changes are: (a) "How useful will they be?" and (b) "Why now?"


Some cynics suggest that the European chemicals agenda seems to be driven in large part by Swedish politicians and officials. These represent the interests of a relatively small nation with a high environmental profile and little by way of an indigenous chemicals industry. Certainly, the EU's Environment Commissioner, Sweden's Margot Wallström, has been central to pushing things through. Also, the European Chemicals White Paper, which originally set out these plans in 2001, was a product of Sweden's EU presidency.


But a focus on narrowly political or economic motives misses the broader cultural trend that drives these matters and that will make the debate over chemicals more, rather than less, central in the coming years. That trend is the growing aversion to risk that is now manifest across society as a whole.


A meeting of science and industry experts recently hosted by the Science Media Centre at the Royal Institution in London pointed to some of the more ludicrous consequences of what is being proposed. Salt and vinegar for instance, have been around and in use for quite some time prior to 1981. Under the new proposals, they too would have to be subjected to rigorous testing lest they prove more toxic than we already know, and in order to harmonize procedures. In short, by asking for an across-the-board approach to some 30,000 chemicals, all sense of appropriate prioritization has gone out of the window.


Similarly, a report commissioned by the UK's Department of the Environment from the Medical Research Council -- Institute for Environment and Health, recorded concerns over the proposed schedule and resource implications of the plans. Their experts contended that it would take until 2017 to cover a mere third of the chemicals concerned and further that this would just cover base level tests. These alone would require the use of some 8.4 million rodents (45.8 million including offspring) and 4.4 million fish. To put this into perspective, since 1981, when testing requirements were first introduced, less than a million vertebrate have been used for such purposes.


It would appear then, that the proposed legislation is both unnecessary and unachievable. It demands tests on substances for which we have billions of hours of exposure data through everyday use and it imposes capacity constraints on existing research facilities in a climate already averse to animal experimentation. It seems almost designed to raise concerns that it will then prove unable to assuage.


But the real crux to all of this is timing. Over the last decade, since a number of high-profile incidents including those at Bhopal, Seveso and Flixborough, the chemical industry has done much to get its own house in order. For instance, in the UK, red-list discharges, which measure releases of the worst pollutants, have come down by over 90 percent. Production has continued to rise, yet accidents at work and by contractors have been halved, to levels below those of many other industries. In addition, the industry, wary of its impaired reputation, has sought to promote dialogue with its neighbors and its consumers.


What has changed is not so much the risk we face, but social perceptions of it and the general climate within which such matters are discussed and then dealt with. For instance, stories abound, in the quality press as much as in the tabloids, about so-called "gender bender" chemicals. Yet, the UK Royal Society's own inquiry into such endocrine disrupting chemicals suggested that exposure to such agents, which occurs significantly more frequently through natural exposure than through that to synthetic agents, could be beneficial.


A more significant new factor in how we handle such matters has been the advent of the "precautionary principle". This was formally incorporated into European decision-making procedures in the aftermath of the BSE, or "mad cow disease", debacle. It demands that we err on the side of caution, by calling for new products and processes to be positively shown not to be detrimental to human health or the environment, prior to their deployment in the marketplace.


One of its consequences has been to marginalize scientific expertise and elevate a new breed of ethical expert to determine on such matters. These now make constant calls to incorporate so-called "lay values" into the decision-making process. Yet, such "values" are no more than opinions that should be interrogated as rigorously as the science they seek to displace. Indeed, calling them "values" is merely a political attempt to set such debate off-limits.


In addition, appeal to the "precautionary principle" demands applying worst case scenario upon worst case scenario even when this becomes absurd. It also presumes that doing nothing or banning substances is somehow a "zero-cost" option. Finally, it leads to a constant deferral of decision-making as there are always more variables that can be thought of and data that can be sought.


This latter has most evidently been the case in the debate regarding phthalate softening agents that are added to PVC. Here, the Commission assumed an adverse outcome a priori by declaring a temporary emergency ban. It has spent years trying to justify this post festum finding itself continuously frustrated by the actual lack of evidence.


This precautionary-obsessed or risk-averse climate drives far more than chemicals policy in Europe today. It is the driver behind almost all policy actions, including our responses to terrorism. By distorting our perceptions and diverting our priorities it threatens to expose us to far greater risks. Accordingly, the numerous public dialogue schemes adopted by industry may be necessary for public relations purposes, but they will not alleviate matters. This will require a political focus rather than a scientific one.


It is clear that the risks facing society today are not disproportionately different to those faced a generation ago. Rather, society has become less confident about its ability to deal with these. By raising problems at a time when these are in decline and by positing widespread testing that is neither desirable nor achievable, there is a danger of feeding the climate of risk aversion rather than assuaging it. Worse, by becoming unwilling to shape our own future, events will end up being forced upon us through our own anxieties.


Bill Durodié is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Policy Institute, King's College, London.


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