Michael Pollan on The Precautionary Principle Regarding Toxic Chemicals

Over the years, I’ve come to understand there is a name for a new way of thinking about toxic chemicals and policy.  It’s The Precautionary Principle.  I’ve pointed out the failings of our current “dose makes the poison” and “risk management” system.  It’s not that I’m against scientific testing of chemicals.  I’m all for it and if reform happens, industry should carry the burden of proof, not consumers/individuals.

However, I don’t think scientific testing ALONE should determine our course of action, nor our public policy.

In an article from 2001, Michael Pollan makes some excellent points.

He wrote,

For the last several decades, American society has been guided by the ”risk analysis” model, which assesses new technologies by trying to calculate the mathematical likelihood that they will harm the public. There are other ways, however, to think about this problem. Indeed, a rival idea from Europe, the ”precautionary principle,” has just begun making inroads in America.

The problem with risk analysis, which came out of the world of engineering and caught on during the late 70’s, is that it hasn’t done a very good job predicting the ecological and health effects of many new technologies. It is very good at measuring what we can know – say, the weight a suspension bridge can bear – but it has trouble calculating subtler, less quantifiable risks. (The effect of certain neurotoxins on a child’s neurological development, for example, appears to have more to do with the timing of exposure than with the amount.) Whatever can’t be quantified falls out of the risk analyst’s equations, and so in the absence of proven, measurable harms, technologies are simply allowed to go forward.”

He also wrote, “Critics argue that the precautionary principle is ”antiscientific.” No and yes. No, in the sense that it calls for more science in order to dispel the uncertainties surrounding new technologies and to develop less harmful alternatives. And yet there is a sense in which the idea is ”antiscientific,” if by scientific we mean leaving it to scientists to tell us what to do. For the precautionary principle recognizes the limitations of science – and the fact that scientific uncertainty is an unavoidable breach into which ordinary citizens sometimes must step and act.”

You can read the whole article here.  http://www.sehn.org/pollan.html

Thank you, Michael, for expressing how I feel.  Variables like age and health of one’s brain won’t be accounted for in such testing.  In one bottle of hand lotion alone can be thousands of chemicals.  Who’ll be the watchdog?  And if they have to be tested in combination with other chemicals, what does this mean to testing on animals?

About Lynn

Blogger, talkcaster and teacher.
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