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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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A Redirection of Approaches Is Needed: From “innocent until proven guilty” to “first do no harm”

Posted on September 1, 2010

By Laura Anderko, RN PhD

This essay is in response to: What is the key obstacle to implementing an effective, health-protective, chemicals management system?

"Better Things for Better Living...Through Chemistry" was an advertising slogan that many remember hearing during its media heyday (which lasted decades). Unfortunately, the reality is that as a nation we are regularly exposed to chemicals that are harmful to our health, making living difficult (not better) for many. This is evidenced by an increasing number of chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and learning disabilities, which are being linked with a range of chemical exposures that we often cannot avoid.

The “Better living through chemistry” jingle highlights one key obstacle to transforming our current chemicals management approach into one that is focused on protecting health: industry has tremendous power in informing and shaping our policies and regulatory mechanisms. This includes our own personal beliefs and opinions about the safety of everyday exposures to a wide array of chemicals. When speaking to the public about ways to reduce chemical exposures from food or consumer products I am always asked why the government isn’t providing more oversight into regulating and managing these exposures. There is an overriding belief that 1) the use of chemicals in food and consumer products has been effectively managed by the government, and 2) that the public’s health is a priority when decisions are made about its use. People are disappointed, shocked, and angered when they learn that our current chemicals management “system” is based on a philosophy of “innocent until proven guilty” rather than “first do no harm”. 

There is a never-ending list of public health concerns that have arisen over the years as a result of studies that have linked chemical exposures to illness, which were discovered after a chemical has been introduced into consumer products and that lacked a comprehensive review of human health impacts.  One recent example is the use of Bisphenol A (BPA) in a variety of consumer products, including plastic baby bottles and associated concerns raised by health experts about BPA's effects on fetal and infant brain development and behavior. Products containing BPA-based plastics have been in commerce for more than 50 years, eliciting public outrage about the lack of consideration of human health effects before its introduction into consumer goods.

Reframing our current chemicals management approach into one that is focused on health-protection will require us to move from a philosophy that is based on the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” into one that promotes “first do no harm,” using data that considers public health implications as a priority in all decisions made about chemicals used in food and consumer products. To accomplish this, industry needs to be held responsible for full disclosure of chemical data, including information on human health effects. Transparency of information and the effective communication of this information are critical to overcoming gaps in our current chemicals management approach. This change will not only allow government agencies that are charged with protecting the public’s health to make better decisions, but will also provide important information to the public, so that informed decisions can be made about products they consume (and to hold those industries accountable for products they sell). Ultimately, this transparency and shift of power to consumers and the government charged with protecting the public’s health, will lead to a cleaner, healthier world.

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Sylvia Swan said ..

I lived it, am damaged by it, undiagnosable per physicians, found documentation supporting it's existence, agencies, courts, politicians refuse to surrender their supporters and face facts - wherein the problem lies. Even households are divided in concept to delivery. Today, however, I was amazed to see Dr. Oz FULLY take on the soda industry (cleaning battery posts with coca cola spotless in 2.5 minutes - THAT took guts so I query "visuals what it really takes"! Thank you for your eloquence and encouragement but until people are sick, they don't come out to play easily. The jobless do, however, have more time to be "damned angry".

September 23, 2010
Richard Weiskopf said ..

I couldn't agree more. However, the road from "innocent until proven guilty" to "first do no harm" will long and difficult.

September 7, 2010
Theodora Crawford said ..

Like the short "First Do No Harm" but why is it buried in the article title...trouble with intellectuals, they expect an honest explanation is compelling...Well, I prefer it, but look around...people Twitter, blog and have time for a cogent, well thought out argument! George Lakoff was brilliant in presenting this reality, Alas, he used too many words. Very best of success...we need you!

September 3, 2010

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