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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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The Limits of Technological Solutions

By Steven G. Gilbert, PhD DABT

This essay is in response to: How can innovations in technology and research reduce exposures to toxic chemicals?

“It is our considered professional judgment that this dilemma has no technical solution.”
Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science, 1968

Garrett Hardin

Technology is a blessing as it brings us many wonderful things including improvements in human health. It is also a curse that provides opportunities for excessive exploitation that ultimately damages human and environmental health. It would be all too easy to leap up and say we must promote green chemistry in order to have more environmentally friendly chemicals, but we must dig deeper. We will not achieve our goal of a healthy and sustainable world by merely switching to another process for developing and utilizing synthetic chemicals. 

Garrett Hardin,[i] an American ecologist, microbiologist, and ethicist, pointed out in his 1968 Science paper “The Tragedy of the Commons”[ii] that many of our environmental and social problems do not require technological solutions, but rather policy changes that improve the management of the problems.  For example, we have developed technology for fishing that allows us to track, catch, and exploit fish in oceans and lakes. However, the majority of the world’s fish stocks are depleted or in decline due to mismanagement: for example, bluefin tuna is in jeopardy because some countries refuse to limit its consumption. Technological innovations will not solve this problem; what is needed is local and international policy changes to improve the management of fisheries.

The use of tobacco products is a classic example of the struggle to manage a clearly hazardous product. Even though research proved that tobacco smoking was hazardous to health, the tobacco industry successfully manufactured controversy and uncertainty around the health effects of tobacco while externalizing the cost of smoking onto the general public and collecting the huge profits.  A tobacco industry executive was quoted as saying “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of facts’ that exists in the mind of the general public.”[iii]  This tactic has been successfully employed countless times at the expense of human and environmental health. 

There currently is a lack of information on the health and environmental effects of chemicals that are in our products. In addition, there are few incentives and requirements for industry to conduct extensive safety testing of chemicals. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) takes a precautionary approach to allowing the sale of new drugs and requires the pharmaceutical industry to do extensive testing to assess the efficacy and safety of a new product. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not have a similar testing requirement before a chemical is placed into everyday products, and we are exposed without our consent. For example, most of us excrete Bisphenol-A (BPA) in our urine due to exposure from a wide range of products. Billions of pounds of this compound are produced each year while a controversy rages about potential health effects.

A further frustration is not even knowing what chemicals are used in a consumer product.  Industry declares that this is “confidential business information” that must be protected as proprietary information to protect market share. What chemicals are in the rubber ducky, shower curtains, nail polish, deodorizers, or pesticides? 

The problem is not the lack of research capabilities, it is the lack of market incentives to do the research. Even if new green chemicals are discovered, will the general public be able to review the safety data and know when and how the chemicals are being used? And would the development of green chemicals ensure that more hazardous chemicals would no longer be used?  To create incentives to reduce exposures to toxic chemicals and ensure human and environmental health we need four policy changes:

  1. Chemical policy reform: The Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA) should be rewritten so that companies must produce data on the need, efficacy, and safety of the chemical.
  2. Disclosure: Industry must reveal which chemicals are in a product and at what amount, and also reveal the likelihood of exposure. 
  3. Product stewardship: Manufactures must be accountable for a product’s life cycle from beginning to end. “You make it, you take it back.” 
  4. Honest accounting: The cost of goods must reflect the true life-cycle costs from production to disposal. In other words, we must stop externalizing the cost of the product onto the environment and future generations.

These fundamental policy changes will unleash the needed research and technology advances.  The challenge is no longer generating new information but applying the information we already have to make the best possible decisions for us and future generations. The judicious application of the knowledge we do have will guide our market-based / capitalistic structured system to make human and environmental health a priority and not an afterthought. 

Notes


[i] Garrett Hardin – Toxipedia. See http://toxipedia.org/x/RhM.

[ii] Hardin, Garrett (1968). "The Tragedy of the Commons." Science 162, 1243-1248.

[iii] Michaels, David (2008). Doubt Is Their Product, Oxford University Press.

 

Comments

Parameswaran,M said ..

It would be interesting to know directly from professionals matters regarding environmental issues.Hope to learn more so that one can pass on relevant advisories to students and social workers

October 14, 2011

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