4 February 2013. After several years of preparation, the European Environment Agency in late January finally released its new monograph on “Late Lessons of Early Warnings”.
The 750-page volume highlights that new technologies may have very harmful effects, but that the early warning signs in many cases have been suppressed or ignored. A series of specific case studies show that, when danger signals have gone unheeded, it can lead to deaths, illness and environmental destruction.
Two chapters focus on chemical brain drainers – lead and mercury. We must learn from these examples. After the introduction of leaded gasoline, virtually no independent research on lead pollution was carried out for several decades, and the main source of information was the industry itself and industry-sponsored researchers. Not until the 1960s and 1970s did independent scientists show, for example, that body burdens of lead arising from human activities were not ‘normal’, as industry claimed, but were hundreds of times higher than before the industrial revolution and were therefore likely to be harmful. By then, studies of children were providing documentation of lead-associated IQ deficits. Decisions on protection against lead toxicity were therefore delayed by many decades.
The mercury chapter focuses on Minamata disease, poisoning with methylmercury from contaminated fish, which can induce lethal or severely debilitating mental and physical effects. While sewage water from a local factory in Minamata, Japan, was clearly the cause of the disease, no action was taken for many years due to incomplete information and the desire to protect important industrial interests.
The report also highlights that much research, perhaps too much, targets well-known problems and much less the potential hazards about which new information is particularly needed. So, academic research is affected by inertia. Worse, when interpreting the results, the lack of definitive evidence is often misinterpreted as proof that a hazard is not present.
But what about false positives, i.e., claims that innocuous chemicals are dangerous? The EEA report looked into a large number of such possible false positives, one of them being mercury in tuna (not a false positive, we now know). Some of these possible risks are still uncertain, but only a few are now known to be false alarms. So, in general, we are not crying “wolf” for no reason.
The EEA recommends that we take into account the complexity of biological and environmental systems. It is increasingly difficult to isolate a single agent and prove beyond doubt that it causes harm. Risk assessment should be improved by embracing uncertainty more broadly and acknowledging what is not known. Thus, ‘no evidence of harm’ has often been often misinterpreted to mean ‘evidence of no harm’ when the relevant research was not available. Policy makers should respond to early warnings more rapidly, the report says, particularly in cases of large scale emerging technologies.