It’s gone too far

The EU’s extreme version of the “precautionary principle” could cost us our health
September 18, 2013

The precautionary principle used to work. It was set out at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, and stated that complete scientific evidence was not necessarily required in support of action on the most serious environmental threats. Unfortunately, since then, this well-intentioned principle has become a destructive tool, used to support bad policies.

Acting on incomplete information is what we do. If a child tries to cross a busy road for ice cream, we don’t wait for a complete model of all the traffic before intervening. We make a quick assessment, and send them down to the pedestrian crossing. But now, the EU has begun using the principle to claim that only things that can be proved not dangerous are allowed. You can’t prove “undangerous.” Even sending the kids down to the pedestrian crossing isn’t safe (there were over 800 pedestrian deaths at intersections in the US in 2010). With the new precautionary principle, crossing the street can’t be allowed. This runs counter to how we act and to how we weigh benefits, even rather trivial ones, against risks, even serious but unlikely ones.

The vamped-up precautionary principle suggests that people should only do what is entirely safe. This makes a great political sledgehammer—anything can be banned.

This is what is happening in the EU with the management of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). These are present in a large number of everyday items, such as food packaging, cosmetics and pesticides. Studies have suggested a possible connection between EDCs and the decline of sperm counts, hormonal changes in women and the increase in certain cancers. That is surely cause for caution. But the new precautionary principle demands that we drop any manmade chemical if we can’t prove it is safe—an impossible task.

While 1.3m people die each year from road accidents, we don’t outlaw traffic. We make roads safer with smart, cost-effective policies like zebra crossings and traffic lights. Likewise we need to weigh the risks and benefits of using chemicals. This is hard, becuse we’re conditioned to be afraid of manmade chemicals. Yet the levels of toxins in natural chemicals are often much higher. Your food has thousands to millions of times more natural than synthetic endocrine disrupting properties. Soy, which is added to more and more of our processed foods, makes up the vast majority of endocrine disruptors. But peas, peanuts and strawberries also contain natural endocrine disruptors. Fruit, on average, has more than 10 times the amount of endocrine disrupting potential than the biggest synthetic disrupter, a controversial chemical called Bisphenol A. Yet we don’t ban fruit and vegetables, because they are also hugely beneficial in fighting disease—according to the Lancet, almost 5m people die each year from not eating enough fruit.

The Septoria leaf blotch is one of the most important diseases affecting wheat production. Without treatment, it can reduce wheat yields by 35 to 50 per cent. But EU precautionary legislation will remove 80 per cent of all fungicides from the market, including the main products protecting us from Septoria. Similar situations apply to other areas of agricultural production.

These precautionary bans are unsafe. They will result in far fewer chemical options in fighting pests, fungi and weeds. Production will go down, and prices will go up. The consequent drop in consumption of fruit and vegetables in the EU could cause thousands of extra deaths from diseases like cancer. Moreover, Europeans will become more dependent on other regions of the world to feed them, crowding out the needs of poor people elsewhere. Higher prices could mean less biodiversity because of pressure to convert woodlands to agricultural production.

The scientific community is now speaking out against this “weaponised” use of the precautionary principle. Eighty-one of the world’s leading toxicologists recently signed a letter to the EU Chief Scientific Advisor expressing their concern at the EU’s lack of proper scientific procedures in assessing potential endocrine disruptors. The signatories emphasised the importance of using the best science to find a sensible, rational way of setting policies.

We need to stand up for common sense and rational policies on human health and the environment. We must insist on proper risk assessments, and the smart weighing up of pros and cons—just like we do when the kids want an ice cream from across the road.