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The solution to dangerous plastics? More science!

June 3, 2010

It’s scary how slow our institutions evolve compared with the proliferation of new technologies and chemicals. I just read a Time Magazine article about this problem, which has a particular focus on endocrine disruptors found in some plastics (BPA). For the most part this article falls into the traditional narrative, arguing that we need more laws limiting chemical use, and more science in support of those laws:

In 2009 the International Endocrine Society released a statement declaring that endocrine disrupters were a significant concern for public health and called for regulation to reduce human exposure. And even the FDA has changed its tune somewhat: in January the agency expressed “some concern” over BPA as the Obama Administration launched a $30 million study of the chemical.

The article goes on to say that we’re not looking hard enough at the complex interactions between trace chemicals:

Good science means widening that search, asking not only which chemicals may play a role in illnesses, but also how those chemicals do their damage.

Not wide enough in my view. Or really, wideness is not the issue; the current scientific approach is just plain wrong-headed. Why spend $30 million dollars just to strengthen the case for legal action on a chemical, when it is already widely believed that the chemical is harmful? What about spending that $30 million on a project looking for safe alternatives to that chemical?

As I’ve pointed out previously, the current approach is totally adversarial. It puts advocates up against corporations, and it delays regulation by focusing a legal debate on scientific uncertainty that may never be fully resolved.

A search for safe alternatives can be done collaboratively, without a legal battle. It can neutralize scientific uncertainty and eliminate dangerous chemicals quickly. This is not just an idle hypothesis. The approach works. It is astounding that the Time article can report that the search for alternatives is too costly, while also noting that we are about to spend another $30 million just to make sure that BPA is dangerous! That’s just crazy talk.

Then again, the search for alternatives would mean a lot less money for the kinds of expensive reductionist science described in the article. In other words don’t expect a change any time soon. In most cases, our institutions are just as slow to shift their approach to science as they are to regulate chemicals.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Thad permalink
    June 4, 2010 1:31 am

    Ryan — Check out an article in The New Yorker on plastics (… just as frustrating. They had a chance to write a wonderful article about the complexities of science policy but didn’t quite get there!

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