Two recently published books are at opposite poles regarding the risks imposed by the addition of synthetic chemicals into our environment. One book is “Legally Poisoned: How the Law Puts Us at Risk from Toxicants” by Carl Cranor. The title speaks for its side in the argument. The other book is “Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health” a multi-author book edited by Jon Entine.
The arguments in Legally Poisoned center on the view that Americans are unwilling guinea pigs exposed to thousands of toxic synthetic chemicals and that more than 200 “toxicants” show up in the body when testing for these chemicals.
The Forbes posting “Chemical is not a four-letter word” reviews both books. In Legally Poisoned, Cranor says:
“…..because we are all “contaminated” it has become impossible to determine which chemicals are causing toxic effects, such as cancer.”
Cranor considers exposure of humans to chemical compounds to be unethical experimentation without informed consent:
“Because most substances are subject [only] to post-marketing regulation, the existing legal system results in involuntary experiments on citizens. The bodies of the citizenry are invaded and trespassed on by commercial substances, arguably a moral wrong.”
As to what to do, Cranor advocates the Precautionary Principle, which would require “that all new products, technologies or activities be prohibited or withdrawn from the market or heavily regulated until there is incontrovertible proof of their safety.”
Scared to Death responds challenging the assertion that these chemicals are “not” tested. They walk one through the many tests that are undertaken to establish a maximum tolerated dose (MTD) in test animals. From this
……an “acceptable” level of human exposure or intake is established that is many orders of magnitude lower than the MTD; it is commonly so low, in fact, that the risk, as the EPA puts it, “may indeed actually be zero.” (Risk is the arithmetic product of hazard – the intrinsic ability to cause injury — times exposure.)
Scared to Death also notes that: “In fact, we exist in a sea of chemicals; indeed, we are chemicals. Some are natural and some are man-made but neither group is intrinsically more or less safe.”
Every chemical, whether natural or synthetic, has some potential toxicity. Indeed, even drinking too much water can be harmful – leading to a condition called psychogenic polydipsia. What matters is the inherent toxicity of each individual chemical and the amount and route of exposure.
Life expectancy in the industrialized countries is constantly increasing, cancer rates are down almost across the board and people are generally healthier. The imposition of more chemophobic, precautionary regulation would unnecessarily turn back the clock to a time when vast numbers of people died from preventable infections, crop yields were devastated by insects and our lives were altogether less convenient.
Finally with respect to application of the Precautionary Principle, Scared to Death says: “Having to prove the absence of risk would strand civilization in the blind alley of needing to prove a negative. Worse, it raises the question of how we can even identify risks and test for them since we cannot foresee them all.”
“Scared to Death argues that regulatory decisions should be dictated by science and the application of established risk assessment techniques rather than according to the sort of precautionary paralysis advocated by Cranor that would deprive the world of lifesaving drugs, disinfectants, pesticides and countless other products that enhance the quality (and length) of our lives. Putting it another way, there are risks inherent in not using new products or technologies, such as vaccines to prevent influenza, insecticides to control disease-carrying mosquitoes or bacteria to clean up oil spills.”