Ever wondered what we’ve got in common with guinea pigs?
More than you might think. The latest findings from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organisation) suggest that there may be a link between cellphone radiation and the growth of cancerous tumours. Whether this is a surprise or not, it does highlight one of the problems with the way we test the safety of new technology. You and I are the ‘guinea pigs’ who are testing it. The ‘burden of proof’ is on us to show an indisputable link between cell phone radiation and cancer by, well, getting cancer. Meanwhile, in the absence of conclusive evidence the director of IARC says, “it is important to take pragmatic measures to reduce exposure such as hands-free devices or texting”.
In other words; take sensible precautions.
Seems obvious doesn’t it? But if we look at the chemical ingredients present in the ordinary products we use in our homes and on our bodies everyday, including shampoo, soap, dishwashing liquid, laundry powder and baby care products we might be surprised at some of the ‘nasties’ hiding in there that have questionable safety. Here’s how it works - your skin is your largest organ; it lives and breathes. Even though it’s an effective barrier it is porous at a microscopic level, which means that a minute percentage of the chemicals used in your skincare, as well as your household cleaning and body care products can actually be absorbed into your bloodstream. Once again the person testing the safety of these chemicals, is you, which is why it makes so much sense to take a precautionary approach – if there’s any risk about the safety of a chemical ingredient why take it?
What is the precautionary principle?
This definition was put together by a group of scientists, philosophers, lawyers and environmental activists;
“When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of the activity, rather than the public should bear the burden of proof”.
Not everyone agrees with the precautionary principle. Here are the two most common arguments;
1. It’s unscientific – It’s based on science and requires more - not less to be done so that general assurances of safety can be replaced by solid evidence.
2. It’s anti progress – The principle is about the burden of proof, it places more responsibility for safety on those who stand to profit if the technology goes ahead, rather than on those who will have to bear the costs if things go wrong.
Smoking and links to lung cancer are a good example of this. The precautionary principle would not have stopped tobacco being made available to the public, but once people started dying of lung cancer and there was reasonable cause for concern linking illness with smoking it would have placed the burden of proof on the tobacco companies rather than on the public to disprove the link between the two. As it stands the public health system had to establish cause and effect.