HEALTH AND INDUSTRIAL CHEMICALS

 


One hundred years ago, the average urbanised European might expect to encounter about 150 synthetic chemicals in the course of a lifetime. That number has now multiplied 500-fold so that we may encounter 75-100,000 chemicals in our lifetime.

Some of these chemicals are harmful to ourselves and to the environment. For instance, 200 chemicals are recognised as being capable of causing asthma. In order to set safe levels for exposure, toxicologists determine the level of exposure needed to kill 50 out of 100 rats, and then divide that level by a factor of say 1000 in order to provide a wide margin of error. This rough and ready - and grim - method is deeply inadequate as a means of predicting whether a chemical is really safe. Humans exposed to nerve toxins often experience a state of mind where their perception of reality becomes subtly diminished, often described as "light-headedness". This effect will not appear in animal studies. Secondly, animal studies cannot take into account of "synergy" - often called "the cocktail effect" when chemicals taken in combination multiply each others' effects. For instance, smoking and asbestos both cause lung cancer, but in combination, the risk is not doubled, but increased by a factor of twenty. There are many toxins, but the number of "target organs" that they can act upon is limited. [See fig 8.2, p159 "Synergy" from Bills of Health, R Lawson, Radcliffe Medical Press 1996]. Laboratory studies are one thing, but real life is quite another. If the dose is higher than average, or the recipient is unexpectedly sensitive, or there is an unexpected synergy, disease can result.

While the chemical industry enjoys the gain from its products, individual humans - not to mention our fellow creatures in the natural world - bears the pain of illness, and the health service bears the cost of attempting to restore health. Illness caused in this way may take a long time to recognise; for instance it took 100 years to establish the toxicity of asbestos, and 20 years and some 20,000 scientific papers to make the connection between smoking and cancer. It should be noted that it is society which pays for this research out of limited funds.

This is clearly an unjust state of affairs. How can it be rectified? The answer comes from applying two core principles of Green economics - the precautionary principle, and producer responsibility. In addition to being required to pay far more attention to the toxicity of their products, manufacturers should put aside money against each of their products. If prima facie evidence appears of a health damaging effect, the fund should be called in to pay for the cost of researching the problem. If it turns out that a real problem can be demonstrated, the product can be banned or restricted. If the problem is not severe enough to cause a ban, a levy should be put in place hypothecated (earmarked) to the health service to pay for the extra cost of treatment entailed by the product.

Rough precedents exist in the taxes applied to tobacco and alcohol, although they are not hypothecated to research and health services. Sugar would be an excellent first candidate for this treatment. In its application, since it would drive up the cost of unproven and health-damaging products, consumption of those products would be reduced. The sugar tax could provide again a free NHS dental service in the UK, and also might well reduce obesity, diabetes and even some cases of childhood behavioural disorders.

This is a reasonable and just response to a major and pervasive health problem.

© Richard Lawson 4.2.02

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© 2001 R. Lawson This page was last updated on 3.Feb.02