Precautionary principle



We were out walking this weekend at the Mersey estuary at Hale. I love this place, a strange mixture of nature and industry. The Liverpool John Lennon airport is to our right, and as we walk we see the Shell refinery at Eastham, the chemical works at Rock Savage near Runcorn.

It’s nearly high tide and a few shelduck and curlews are at the water’s edge in the mud that is so important for wildlife here. I love the sound of the water lapping. I love the strangeness of this place, the remote-ness. The fluffy seedheads of the marsh grass which look so good in the winter. I love the way Easy Jet, KLM and Ryan Air planes appear seemingly only feet above us. And the occasional sound of the reverse thrust as the planes land.

The RSPB Liverpool website says that the River Mersey is now at its cleanest since the industrial revolution. Oxygen levels are now 60%, a level of 30% being enough for fish to survive. This is due to a clean up campaign started in the 1980s and now this is an internationally important estuary for several bird species, including widgeon. More fish equals more birds.
Seems strange that it is so industrial yet it is safe for wildlife. Is the balance right here? I think about the environment now so much, air and water and chemicals. I can’t help not.

Last month The Independent reported that major producers are stopping using the chemical Bisphenol A (BPA) from packaging. At that time reports were showing that the chemical contributes to human illnesses including heart disease and breast cancer. Since then the European Commission have voted to put a ban on the use of BPA in the use of plastic baby bottles by June 2011. This news was welcomed, and when I was in Brussels just after this, it was being seen as an important step, the beginning of other chemicals being banned. 

So what’s wrong with Bisphenol A? Well, it’s an endocrine disruptor. That means it disturbs our hormone balances, and can therefore influence cancer risk, especially hormonal cancers, like some breast cancers. It behaves like oestrogen, so is called an oestrogen mimic, and disrupts the natural balance of our hormones. Studies with rats show that low doses of BPA in even brief exposures during gestation or around the time of birth lead to changes in mammary tissue predictive of later tumour development, that means breast cancer. It’s unstable, and can leach into infant formula and other food products, especially when heated.

And it’s not just in baby bottles either. It is widely used to coat metals and also to toughen plastics. So it’s found on the inside of tins of food and drinks and also inside lids of glass jars. It’s also used in the casings of electrical goods like hairdryers and cameras, as well as kitchen appliances and also sport equipment. It’s used in medical equipment too, like dentist’s lamps and also on the coatings of spectacle lenses. And it’s also used to make ink visible on thermal till receipts, which consumers handle and sometimes put in our mouths. BPA is actually readily absorbed by the skin, so even touching it could be potentially hazardous. So, in fact, it’s pretty much everywhere, and we’re all exposed to it probably continuously at low doses.

So, when I think about the baby bottle ban I think that yes, it is a start. But how long does it take before this kind of ban is wider, where everyone, not just babies, are protected? When does there have to be enough evidence, enough people with cancer, or other illnesses, for us to start looking at this with some urgency? A short film by Breast Cancer UK states that there are 80,000 synthetic chemicals in our environment, and 500 of them are known to be hormone disruptors.

Of course there are sceptics who say there is no ‘convincing evidence’. So just how convincing does convincing have to be? Because in the law of the European Union the application of the precautionary principle has been made a statutory requirement. So that means:

… a willingness to take action in advance of scientific proof [or] evidence of the need for the proposed action on the grounds that further delay will prove ultimately most costly to society and nature, and, in the longer term, selfish and unfair to future generations.

It would be extremely selfish to leave a future that contains high levels of illness and cancer. Especially when we have the information now to start reversing the statistics.

So here in Europe, on the issue of Bisphenol A, we are apparently doing better than the USA. In the US Senate last minute lobbying by the chemical industries stopped BPA being banned despite widespread report in both major parties. In October Canada became the first country to list  BPA as a toxic substance.

And, why am I not surprised to read this – the BBC News Europe story ends with the statement that in Canada the ban on BPA was ‘strongly opposed by the chemical industry’.

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