Chemicals, Risk And The Public (Chicago Tribune)

April 29, 1989|By Earon S. Davis

The public is increasingly uncomfortable with both the processes and the results of government and industry decision-making about chemical hazards.

Decisions that expose people to uncertain and potentially catastrophic risks from chemicals seem to be made without adequate scientific information and without an appreciation of what makes a risk acceptable to the public.

The history of environmental and occupational health provides myriad examples in which entire industries have acted in complete disregard of public health risks and in which government failed to act until well after disasters were apparent.

It is not necessary to name each chemical, each debacle, in which the public was once told the risks were insignificant, but these include DDT, asbestos, Kepone, tobacco smoke, dioxin, PCBs, vinyl chloride, flame retardants in children`s sleepware, Chlordane, Alar and urea formaldehyde foam. These chemicals were banned or severely restricted, and virutally no chemical has been found to be safer than originally claimed by industry and government.

It is no wonder that government and industry efforts to characterize so many uncertain risks as “insignificant“ are met with great skepticism. In a pluralistic, democratic society, acceptance of uncertainty is a complex matter that requires far more than statistical models. Depending upon cultural and ethical factors, some risks are simply more acceptable than others.

When it comes to chemical risks to human health, many factors combine to place a relatively higher burden on government and industry to show social benefits. Not the least of these is the unsatisfactory track record of industry and its regulatory agencies.

Equally important are the tremendous gaps in scientific knowledge about chemically induced health effects, as well as the specific characteristics of these risks.

Chemical risks differ from many other kinds because, not only are the victims struck largely at random, but there is usually no way to know which illnesses are eventually caused by a chemical. There are so many poorly understood illnesses and so many chemical exposures which take many years to develop that most chemical victims will not even be identified, let alone properly compensated.

To the public, this difference is significant, but to industry it poses few problems. Rather, it presents the opportunity to create risks and yet remain free of liability for the bulk of the costs imposed on society, except in the rare instance where a chemical produces a disease which does not otherwise appear in humans.

Statutes of limitations, corporate litigiousness, inability or unwillingness of physicians to testify on causation and the sheer passage of time pose major obstacles to chemical victims attempting to receive compensation.

The delayed effects of chemical exposures also make it impossible to fully document the risks until decades after the Pandora`s box has been opened. The public is increasingly afraid that regulators are using the lack of immediately identified victims as evidence of chemical safety, which it simply is not.

Chemical risks are different because they strike people who have given no consent, who may be completely unaware of danger and who may not even have been born at the time of the decision that led to their exposure. They are unusual, too, because we don`t know enough about the causes of cancer, birth defects and neurological and immunologic disorders to understand the real risks posed by most chemicals.

The National Academy of Sciences has found that most chemicals in commerce have not even been tested for many of these potential health effects. In fact, there are growing concerns of new neurologic and chemical sensitivity disorders of which almost nothing is known.

We are exposed to so many chemicals that there is literally no way of estimating the cumulative risks. Many chemicals also present synergistic effects in which exposure to two or more substances produces risks many times greater than the simple sum of the risks. Society has begun to see that the thousands of acceptable risks could add up to one unacceptable generic chemical danger.

The major justification for chemical risks, given all of the unknowns and uncertainties, is an overriding benefit to society. One might justify taking a one-in-a-million risk for a product that would make the nation more economically competitive or prevent many serious cases of illness. But such a risk may not be acceptable if it is to make plastic seats last a little longer, to make laundry 5 percent brighter or lawns a bit greener, or to allow apples to ripen more uniformly.

These are some of the reasons the public is unwilling to accept many of the risks being forced upon it by government and industry. There is no “mass hysteria“ or “chemophobia.“ There is growing awareness of the preciousness of human life, the banal nature of much of what industry is producing and the gross inadequacy of efforts to protect the public from long-term chemical hazards.

If the public is to regain confidence in the risk management process, industry and government must open up their own decision-making to public inquiry and input. The specific hazards and benefits of any chemical product or byproduct should be explained in plain language. Uncertainties that cannot be quantified must also be explained and given full consideration. And the process must include ethical and moral considerations such as those addressed above. These are issues to be decided by the public, not bureaucrats or corporate interests.

For industry and government to regain public support, they must stop blaming “ignorance“ and overzealous public interest groups for the concern of the publc and the media.

Rather, they should begin by better appreciating the tremendous responsibility they bear to our current and future generations, and by paying more attention to the real bottom line in our democracy: the honest, rational concerns of the average American taxpayer.