Proof or precaution, Grandpa?
3 March 2014. The aim of protecting the next generation’s brains against toxic chemicals must rely on prudent decision-making. On the one hand, we prefer reasonable certainty that we are making correct choices and not banning or limiting the production and use of important commodities. However, if we aim at obtaining complete evidence, the research will be long-lasting and costly, and during this time children will continue to be exposed. How should we resolve this conundrum?
Let’s take this step by step, like a grandfather would explain his generation’s optimistic use of industrial chemicals to a grandchild. How often has it happened that an alleged chemical risk later on turned out to be innocuous? When 88 alleged “false positives” were systematically reviewed, only four (none of which relate to brain toxicity) were truly false positives and had resulted in costly societal efforts. While the initial scare was exaggerated, any over-reaction was soon controlled. About one-third of the 88 risks (such as mercury in tuna, PCBs, and trichloroethylene) were soon demonstrated to be real risks. A slightly larger group was still uncertain – the jury was still out – and other substances are not relevant, as they have not been regulated. So overreaction to environmental scares is clearly not a common event. However, if regulation of brain-toxic chemicals becomes stricter, as proposed in the recent Lancet Neurology article, there could be a risk that some efforts will be misguided. Is that a price worth paying?
The chemical industry seems unsupportive. In a recent press release, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) claimed that the Lancet report “has several serious flaws that undermine its credibility and usefulness in advancing understanding of these important issues.” The statement also says that the article’s “assertions do nothing to advance true scientific understanding and only create confusion and alarm”. The ACC wants thorough scientific understanding.
Fair enough, but how thorough? According to the ACC we are far from having the necessary evidence: “the report ignores the fundamental principles of exposure and potency. In other words, the authors disregard important factors like how chemicals are used, whether children are actually exposed to them, at what level they are exposed and for how long”. Thus, the ACC is unimpressed by the documentation that chemical brain drain is affecting millions of children and that the 12 known brain-drainers are known to reach and cause damage to the developing brain in exposed children.
But does the chemical industry not recognize this evidence? Perhaps, but there may be financial incentives to demanding better proof. On some occasions, financial interests have tried to thwart any scientific evidence that might constitute a threat. Thus, Big Tobacco-style campaigns have recently been launched to bury unwelcome research regarding endocrine-disrupting chemicals. But is brain toxicity not different?
The brain makes us – and our grandchildren – who we are, and chemical brain drain is not limited to certain social subgroups. Although some chemical exposures are greater among blue-collar worker households or families living in poverty, others are more prominent among well-to-do families. The chemical risks are also not likely to respect national borders. Our children and grand-children are at risk, no matter whether we are CEOs or factory workers. Say, Grandpa, would some precaution not be appropriate?