If The Government Says It's Safe, It's Safe. Right?
The folks who bring us gene-spliced soybeans, corn, potatoes, and other foods like to make a point of the U.S. government's approval of their products. The feds OK'd it. That must mean biotech foods are safe, right?Right. Sure. This is the government that declared DDT safe and thalidomide and DES and dozens of other drugs, additives, and pesticides that were banned only after they had done grievous harm. Given that history, why should we trust the government?Take, for example, the current controversy about endocrine disrupters, the class of chemicals that mimic or block the action of the body's hormones. These disrupters include many pesticides, PCBs, dioxins and ingredients in plastics, cleaning agents and other chemicals that you and I encounter every day.For decades neither industry nor government could have protected us against this harm, because no one suspected its existence. About fifteen years ago alarms began to be sounded, primarily by wildlife biologists, who found problems in sea birds, polar bears, alligators, whales. For awhile the regulators did nothing. Then, as concern began to hit the popular press (particularly concern about human sperm counts), the government did what it usually does. It commissioned a National Academy of Sciences study.That study has just been released under a cloud. Not only did the scientific panel include several chemical industry apologists, but its staff coordinator has just left the Academy to join a biotech industry lobbying group.However the committee did include several scientists who are worried about endocrine disrupters and who brought a mountain of compelling evidence to the table. Here are just a few of the findings the whole panel found undeniable. (HAA is the report's abbreviation for "hormonally active agent." Apparently "endocrine disrupter" sounds too ominous.)- HAAs are found in air, water, soil, and sediments all over the world, can persist in the environment for years and can be transported long distances.- HAAs are widely found in wild creatures. The higher the creature is in the food chain, the higher its concentration of HAAs.- HAAs are also found in the human food supply and in human fat and milk.- Birds that feed on HAA-contaminated fish reproduce poorly and their populations are declining.- Lab animals exposed to these chemicals develop abnormal reproductive tracts and low sperm counts.- Birds from the Great Lakes region and seals from the Baltic Sea, where PCB concentrations are high, have weak immune systems and are susceptible to deadly infections.- Babies born in Michigan to mothers with high PCB exposure had low birth weight, slow weight gain, and slow neurological development.- Levels of the herbicide atrazine in Iowa municipal water supplies are correlated with birth defects in babies' hearts, genitals, and limbs.- People who eat Great Lakes fish perform more poorly on tests of memory, cognition, and motor function than an equivalent group from the same region who eat no fish.- Several HAAs have been shown to reduce immune system function in both laboratory and wildlife studies.There are more such conclusions in longer sentences with longer words, but you get the idea.No government can protect anyone from dangers of which science is completely unaware. However, I would argue that once scientists compile a list like the one above, it is high time the regulators step forward vigorously. What is needed is more research (which the panel did recommend) and stringent reduction of public exposure to risk while the research is going on.I'm not a knee-jerk government basher, but I'm appalled by the process by which industry and government have colluded to plunge us into a soup of 70,000 inadequately tested industrial chemicals, plus a thousand or two new ones every year. Instead of eliminating the government I distrust, I'd strengthen and transform it. Industry funds should never flow to politicians. Regulators should not flow back and forth to industry. Regulators should be adequately funded to do their job. Above all the government should see its role as protecting health, not profits.All that would require a starting presumption exactly backward from the one that now prevails. While resolving scientific doubt, don't keep exposing the public to risk. If we're dealing with chemicals nature has never seen (at least not in the quantities industry is prepared to spew out), caution is better than permissiveness. People are more important than companies. Nature is more important than the stock market. Life is more important than power.Serious campaign reform, getting private money out of public business, is the only way I can see that we can ever have a government we trust. Until then I am not assured about gene-spliced foods, industry-produced chemicals, or anything else the regulators have declared safe.(Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College and director of the Sustainability Institute, a think/do tank that promotes sustainable systems.)