The Limits of Technological Solutions
December 16, 2010
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,”
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
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
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:
- 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.
- Disclosure: Industry
must reveal which chemicals are in a product and at what amount, and also
reveal the likelihood of exposure.
stewardship: Manufactures must be accountable for a product’s life cycle from
beginning to end. “You make it, you take it back.”
- 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
Garrett (1968). "The Tragedy of the Commons." Science 162, 1243-1248.
Michaels, David (2008). Doubt Is Their
Product, Oxford University Press.