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Just how dangerous are modern chemicals? According to experts, not as much as regulators or the media would have you think. That’s the finding from a new survey by the Society of Toxicology, George Mason University and the Statistical Assessment Service. It calls into question our incessant march towards tighter regulation of chemicals—especially as European governments reconsider their expansive approach to chemical regulation.
The survey queried around 1,000 members of the Society of Toxicology, the group that represents America’s academic and professional experts on chemical risk. Large majorities disagree that chemical food additives and cosmetics pose a significant health risk, although slim majorities believe that pesticides and endocrine disruption pose some health risks. However, the scientists overwhelmingly reject certain notions that have become conventional wisdom due to environmentalist campaigns. The respondents do not believe that any exposure to chemicals is unacceptable, that organic food is safer, that any level of chemicals involves a health risk, or that animal testing is unnecessary.
It is the scientists’ attitude to regulation and media coverage of chemical risk that is perhaps most interesting. A majority believes that regulators have not been balanced in explaining chemical risk to the public, putting more emphasis on alarm than reassurance. They strongly reject the notion that chemical regulation should be based on the “precautionary principle”—a regulatory approach that suggests that when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, regulators should prevent or restrict it even if the risks have not been demonstrated scientifically. The scientists’ rejection of the principle underscores the fact that it has become a barrier to scientific progress, resulting in overbearing regulation that chills the development of science.
As for the media, 87 percent of the survey respondents believe that news about chemical risk tilts toward alarmism. However, they appear to place much of the blame on their academic colleagues. They express concern that scientists are quoted by the media about issues outside their field of expertise and that the peer review system has become politicized. Fully 90 percent are concerned that news coverage starts about research findings before the peer review process has even started.
The surveyed scientists also believe that environmental advocacy groups overstate risks more than industry groups understate them—a notion that may run counter to public opinion. Around 80 percent or more of the respondents believe that leading environmental and allied groups groups— Center for Science in the Public Interest, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Working Group, Environmental Defense Fund and PETA—overstate chemical risk. For Greenpeace, the figure is 96 percent. By contrast, the American Chemical Council and PhRMA are regarded as accurate by 40 percent and as understating risks by about 60 percent. As for the regulators, the Environmental Protection Agency is not all that trusted, with slightly more of the respondents regarding it as overstating the risks than those who regard it as an accurate purveyor of information (41 percent versus 40 percent).
Perhaps the most startling result of the survey is scientists overwhelmingly finding online sources more accurate in conveying the true effect of chemicals than traditional media. Ninety percent of scientists believe local, broadcast and cable news, USA Today and local newspapers overstate chemical risks. The figure is 80 percent for health magazines, news magazines and national newspapers. Yet 56 percent believe the primary medical website, WebMD is accurate. The figure is 45 percent for that supposedly unreliable resource, Wikipedia (although 50 percent do believe it overstates risks).
The survey is a stunning indictment of both policy making and media coverage reggarding chemicals and their risks. If advocacy groups, the media and regulators routinely overstate risks it should come as no surprise if the public demands regulation that impedes scientific research.
This research is also timely in that it comes out at a time when the European Union is awakening to the costs of burdensome chemical regulation. With the recession still biting, EU Ministers are discussing relaxing the requirements of their regulation known as REACH, which the EU employers’ group BusinessEurope says is costing the chemical industry $280 billion in registration expenses.
Chemical regulation may have gone too far, having been driven by sensationalist claims and reporting. If science is really to lead policy, as this administration says it should, then we should expect fewer product bans and restrictions and more deregulation of chemicals. If this does not happen, then we will know it is activists and not scientists who are in charge of the nation’s environmental policy.