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The fine line: profits before safety and innovation before precaution

The report asks: "Why did business not react with precaution to early warnings?"
Column by Colin Isaacs
EcoLog, 1/25/2013 10:55:00 AM

Many companies are used to getting heck from environmental groups, but less so from government agencies. That is one of the features that make the new 746-page “Late Lessons from Early Warnings, Volume II” report from the European Environment Agency so interesting.

“Late Lessons from Early Warnings” reports that companies and governments often ignore warnings until damage to health and the environment becomes unavoidable. The report states that companies sometimes put short-term profits ahead of public safety. Sometimes scientists downplay risks or deliberately set out to confuse decision-makers and the public. Governments, at the urging of industry, sometimes put economic priorities ahead of public and environmental safety.

The report emphasizes that more widespread adoption of what is known as the Precautionary Principle could help reduce or avoid harm from new technologies.

The report comprises an analysis of much of the literature on corporate environmental and social responsibility and an in-depth review of 20 case studies. Some of the case studies, such as that of the tobacco and lead gasoline industries, are not new, but others are very current.

A key section includes a review of the Precautionary Principle. It concludes that concerns that its application will lead to many false positives and over-regulation of industry are not well founded.

The research shows that application of the Precautionary Principle is more likely to save industry money than it is to stifle innovation. Given this information, which is not new, the report asks, “Why did business not react with precaution to early warnings?” The answers include the misperception that it is profitable for industries to continue using potentially harmful products or operations as well as combinations of epistemological (knowledge-related), regulatory, cultural, psychological and political issues.

Among the 20 case studies are: vinyl chloride — a saga of secrecy; the pesticide Dibromochloropropane (DBCP) and male infertility; and mobile phones and brain tumor risk — early warnings, early actions?

The vinyl chloride case study states that warnings about the harm caused by the substance to the skin and bones of workers and to the livers of laboratory animals, as well as the association of the substance with a rare liver cancer, were initially hidden by the industry from workers and regulators.

Subsequently, industry provided greatly exaggerated estimates of the costs of complying with enhanced regulations. The case study concludes that initial reductions in exposure levels did not continue to be lowered despite experimental evidence that showed risks were still present . The authors conclude that the approach to setting exposure levels should be a dynamic one, in which levels are constantly lowered throughout time in light of scientific evidence and technological achievements.

Dibromochloropropane (DBCP) is a pesticide used against nematodes that damage pineapples, bananas and other tropical fruits. Unfortunately, DBCP also causes damage to human male sperm production. It is one of the earliest confirmed examples of endocrine disruption.

The authors demonstrate the steps that industry took to oppose or delay regulation. One industry group went so far as to suggest that the fact that DBCP causes sterility may be a good thing because  many males who wish to be sterilized would not have to pay for the procedure.  The case study concludes that "[p]rotecting production workers, users, consumers, and the environment from chemicals that may damage reproduction needs the closer integration of scientific disciplines, and government actions if timely protection from harm, using precautionary approaches to the evidence from science, is to be achieved. The lessons of DBCP may help in this."

The issue of mobile phones and the effects of their radiation has been well-covered in the mainstream media, but the authors of this report state that the media has not in fact provided the public with robust and consistent information on potential health risks. The industry has exhibited inertia in considering the various studies and taking the carcinogenic classification system established by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer into account. The case concludes by stating that the industry is still fighting against scientific evidence regarding the carcinogenicity of mobile phones, that it is making unfounded attacks on individual researchers, and that it is challenging published results on the likely harm caused by mobile phones by using obscure methods and unscientific data without considering the overall pattern of published data.

Other case studies presented include:

  • Too much to swallow: PCE contamination of mains water
  • Beryllium's 'public relations problem'
  • Tobacco industry manipulation of research
  • Bisphenol A: contested science, divergent safety evaluations
  • Booster biocide antifoulants: is history repeating itself?
  • Ethinyl oestradiol in the aquatic environment
  • Climate change: science and the precautionary principle
  • Floods: lessons about early warning systems
  • Seed dressing systemic insecticides and honeybees
  • Late lessons from Chernobyl, early warnings from Fukushima
  • Hungry for innovation: from GM crops to agroecology
  • Invasive alien species: a growing but neglected threat?
  • Nanotechnology — early lessons from early warnings.

Among the many findings of the report:

1. Systems of governance misrepresent the socio-ecological system, making societies and the environment subordinate to the economy. This ignores the reality that any civilization is ultimately dependent on its ecological and social foundations and that economies function to sustain and enhance human well-being.

2. The scale, interconnectedness and sheer complexity of feedbacks between nature and human interventions have outstripped society's capacity to understand, recognize and respond to these effects.

3. There is now increasing evidence that precautionary measures do not stifle innovation, but can encourage it, in particular when supported by smart regulation or well-designed tax changes. Warnings of impending hazards are, in many areas, still not being heeded and the resulting damage is far more widespread, geographically, across species and extending to future generations, who will particularly suffer many of the harmful effects of our current energy systems, chemicals and technologies.

4. Damage is now shown to be occurring at increasingly lower levels of exposure to pollution, and the polluters, for the most part, are still not paying the full costs of their pollution, partly because of a lack of incentives to do so.

5. Globalized industries are now racing to introduce new technologies but with limited understanding of what their impacts might be.

6. New transformative approaches are emerging for managing the systemic and interconnected challenges that we face. These approaches are building in particular on the increasing use by consumers, citizens and shareholders of the power of the internet and social media to demand and foster increased participation, responsibility, accountability and transparency.

The report concludes by expanding upon three main opportunities:

• to correct the prioritization of economic and financial capital over social, human and natural capitals through the broader application of the policy principles of precaution, prevention and polluter-pays, and improved accounting systems across government and business

• to broaden the nature of evidence and public engagement in choices about crucial innovation pathways by balancing scientific efforts more towards dealing with complex, systemic challenges and unknowns and complementing this knowledge with lay, local and traditional knowledge

• to build greater adaptability and resilience in governance systems to deal with multiple systemic threats and surprises, through strengthening institutional structures and deploying information technologies in support of the concept of responsible information and dialogues.

A brief summary, a 44-page summary, and the 746-page full report can be found here.

Colin Isaacs is a scientist who has been advising governments and the private sector on issues such as waste reduction, reuse, recycling, stewardship, environmental management, and social responsibility since 1980. He is currently working for the CIAL Group.  colin@cialgroup.com.



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