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The EU is adopting the precautionary principle for commonly used chemicals. Barbara Panvel argues that it should be extended intoother areas of life.

An 02 mobile phone mast in Coleshill was removed after the MP Mike O’Brien objected on the grounds that it was ugly.

Evidence of serious ill health, including the cases of seven teachers with tumours who worked at a primary school near the mast, was disregarded - aesthetic objections are taken into account but health risks are not recognised as a valid ground for objection.

Why don’t the EU directives based on the precautionary principle extend to these masts and other sources of radiation?

These directives have removed many health hazards: toxic materials used in making toys, phthalates in plastic and certain air pollutants. Adding certain antibiotics to animal feed is banned to prevent resistance being transferred through the food chain to humans.

On 1st June this year the EU’s ‘REACH’ directive comes into force - calling for the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals. It means that thousands of untested chemicals in common use will now have to be proved safe by manufacturers or importers.

The American chemical industry is objecting because the regulations threaten the export of more than $20bn worth of chemicals to Europe each year.

The increasing use of hazardous chemicals in industry and agriculture with cumulative and long-term health impacts is a serious health threat. Even medically prescribed chemicals need more careful testing: during the last eight years more than thirty have done such unforeseen damage that they have been withdrawn or restricted to those who are not old, young, frail or pregnant.

Despite these moves the abominable alibi of ‘acceptable risk’ is still used with regard to children when the health of only a small percentage will be affected. Poisonous mercury, which acted as a preservative in infant vaccines, was kept on the shelves in this country long after US researchers first warned against the practice.

Applying the precautionary principle, scientific proof that a food product is safe is needed before it can be approved for production and sale. Grocery Manufacturers of America [GMA] have described this legislation as “a serious and imminent threat" to tens of billions of dollars in U.S. food exports.

The principle has also been applied to GM products, but laws and directives are only rendered effective by implementation, and there is great pressure from food exporters and the chemical industry to water down this legislation.

Attempts to do this have been resisted to date, but scientist Dr. Mae-Wan Ho has warned that regulators are ignoring the precautionary principle, manipulating science and promoting GMOs in the face of public opposition and increasing evidence that GM food and animal feed is unsafe.

Jeremy Rifkin, advisor to several governments, believes that modern science is too primitive to address the problems of a world at risk due to the scale and carelessness of human intervention. He calls for a new approach that prioritises the human and environmental health of the whole world.

Should we operate the Precautionary Principle in relation to chemicals and other technological developments? Or would that hinder technological breakthroughs?

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