Thursday, June 23, 2011

Submitting to "authority"

Awesome - it seems some people are reading this blog, because yesterday's post got a few of you commenting (if you can comment on the blog as well as on Facebook, I'd prefer that so that people who don't have access to Facebook can read your thoughts on the blog...), and hopefully some of you thinking. 

I don't want to say facts and data speak for themselves, because they never do. But facts can be scary, because what facts can reveal, if you are willing to accept the revelations, are gaps in what is known, and what isn't. When it comes down to chemicals we are surrounded by, the facts clearly state that less than one percent of the approximately 100,000 chemicals in use in the US have been studied for impacts on health. What the facts clearly state is that less than one percent of these 100,000 chemicals are regulated for amounts in drinking water. What the facts clearly state is that more than 3,000 chemicals are introduced for use each year.

What does all of this mean? (Here is where the debate gets going.) In no way am I saying (and I did not at all say yesterday) that everything man-made is bad; many of these chemicals will likely even never be present in our drinking water. Okay. But what about those that will be? Who knows? Will they be regulated? Who knows? Will they be harmful in large doses? Who knows? Will they be harmful in small doses? Who knows? Why don't we know? Since it is close to impossible to hold anyone accountable for what happens to us, those that stand to profit don't care about negative impacts. This cannot be contended. If those that stood to profit were held accountable, they would care about negative impacts. So what we have done here is given free reign to those whose job it is to maintain accountability and those you need to be held accountable, whatever the impacts.

Over the next few days, I want to challenge some of the comments I received yesterday, because they were thought-provoking, and because they shed light on so many of the issues I have tried to address in previous posts. I will address issues of apology, complexity, the desire for more, the scale of the issues, uncertainty, the power and weakness of numbers, and skepticism. Today, I want to write just a little bit about submission to "authority." 

With the statistics pointed out above, I believe that there are issues of trust and authority that arise. What if just one of the more than 3,000 chemicals introduced yearly (0.033%) is toxic? If the government either can't keep up with the quantities used, or is complicit in its use, and has given the liberty of production and disposal to industry, in the end, it is you and me that may be drinking this chemical in water, or your and my child may be born with it in its body.

I understand that there are naturally toxic chemicals - take the chemicals present in venom, for example, or the poisons present in plants. But there is absolutely no denying that it is scary when PCBs are present in our tissues and bodies, chemicals that are toxic in small quantities...and not only our bodies, for we live close to industrial sources, but even people thousands of miles away from industrial sources (Matthew, I confused the statistic for dioxins with PCBs). PCBs are man-made, completely and totally. Actually, their deleterious health effects were known much before commercial production began. The same is the case with tetra-ethyl lead that was used as an additive in gasoline for decades. Now while PCBs may be present in our bodies in too small of an amount to do harms themselves, what happens when your body houses a soup of these chemicals? What if PCBs and dioxins and synthetic hormones and man-made pesticides are present in nature at the same time? What are their combined effects on the environment? On our health? We'll never know. Ever. So do we just give up, and submit to authority? How can we continue to trust a system that allows us to live in such a state of uncertainty? This is exactly the position that those that stand to profit want us to be in. And what other classes are being used that are potentially bad for nature and us?

The issue is that we are willing to let people do things to us without a even a moderate assessment of impacts. How is it that we can just let this happen? In the end, if a chemical is non-toxic, go ahead, use it. But don't mess with me by using it first, then apologise for the harm it caused. This is not right. This is scary.
And enough ecological damage has been caused for me to not want to submit to the authority of government and industry. You shouldn't either.


  1. I liked your post but I still have a few sticking points. Firstly, every chemical produced is studied for its impact on health (see MSDS). Yes they don't study the impact on human health but the health impact on mammals is evaluated. If som...ething was incredibly toxic it would not be approved or it is heavily regulated in its production, transport, and disposal. "What if PCBs and dioxins and synthetic hormones and man-made pesticides are present in nature at the same time? What are their combined effects on the environment? On our health?" We have done this experiment because there already are all of these things in the environment. The conclusion you can make from the experiment is that the effect is too small to measure (i.e. we have better things to worry about where the effects are measurable). The funny thing is most of many of the biggest concerns about these compounds, as you point out, our their hormone effects. People intentionally take injections of synthetic hormones for medical, performance enhancement, and life extension on a regular basis. People take concentrated doses of synthetic hormones with minimal to no side effects. The sort of contamination you are talking about in the environment is much smaller (PPT) and it is unlikely that most of is very bio-available. If you are concerned about estrogenic compounds you should protest tofu, which appears at a much higher concentration and the effect is measurable (although vanishingly small). If you think things should be tested, why not target things that people really trust that might be dangerous (e.g. essential oils, tea tree oil, lavender, etc.). People expose themselves to countless natural extracts that are bioactive (i.e. designed to influence our body). I think our bodies are much more resistent to chemical exposure then you realize. Sometimes ingesting natural supplements. These are the compounds that go absolutely unregulated. Unnatural compounds are heavily regulated. If PCBs or leaded gasoline were produced today I can assure you they would not be approved. We live in a different time with a lot more oversight. Additionally I think we are a lot tougher than you think. We are designed to refind homeostasis no matter what the environmental influence.

  2. Also you don't have to look for snake venom to find poisons in nature, every chemical is toxic over a certain concentration (i.e. there is nothing so special about man made chemicals). If we are going to worry exhaustively about the synergy... of minute quantities of man made toxins why stop there? There are countless bioactive compounds found in everything we eat. Why not worry about the vitamin C having an unusual reaction with the flavinoids in celery? Or the fatty acids in fish oils disrupting a hormone imbalance brought on by too much menthol in mint...

  3. Also contrary to what you said, you have the government authority largely on your side of the issue. I think the main reason we fear man made chemicals more than the ones we choose to ingest is they they are imposed on us rather than our ch...oice. Look at the over the top irrational fears and paranoia surrounding airport scanners, cell phones, nuclear power,flying, etc. We rarely fear the things we have control over and choice.

  4. Just wanted to be on record that ethyl alcohol is a non-toxic chemical :)

  5. I've watched this conversation unfold (a lot more interesting than most facebook comment threads!), and it's funny that this somewhat polarized discussion has come up two days after Darshan's post on false dichotomies - I'm giving a little thought to the process whereby dichotomies breakdown - because it seems that both of you Darshan and Matthew are adopting and defending stances. I do that all the time - it is sort of my job actually.

    When we adopt and defend stances, choosing the sides of our dichotomies, we tend to do what both of you are doing - Darshan shooting precautionary principle based arguments and problematizing the institution of science - and Matthew scientific fact - both in defense of your stances. If y'all are up for it I'd be curious to conduct this conversation on the level of values. Matthew - what are the values that underlie your beliefs on the safety of chemicals? Why do you trust science, where Darshan does not? Why are you working in chemical engineering (I'm assuming) in the first place? Darshan, your blog is probably chalk full of this, but what are the values that lead you to essentially the precautionary principle? What is leading you to question the if the utility of these chemicals is worth the potential and realized costs? Right now you are both talking within your discipline boxes - Darshan in ethics, Matthew in engineering - but somewhere below what you've both stated thus far there are tangled roots of both. Dig them up if you feel like it!

  6. Andrew, you made some really great points. I had a similar thought but didn't get around to expressing it (I am a little argumentative). My trust for science comes from my perception of its track record. Science not only brought us modern m...edicine and technology which has allowed us to live longer and more comfortable lives but it also brought us the environmentalism that stands to balance and hold development in check. The focus of real science (as opposed to engineering) is to understand the world and in essence "get it right" at all costs. The highest moral in science is to "get it right" and so everything about the pursuit is designed to enhance this effort (e.g. peer review, reproducibility, statistics, comparison to past findings). In contrast, pure environmentalism in the absence of science has a different moral in mind and is not mainly focused on "getting it right." It is my perception that the highest moral in pure environmentalism is the protection of nature at all costs, including not quite getting it right. Now I am not belittling the importance of environmentalism (which I hold in a very high esteem) I am just saying that I am frightened of an environmentalism that chooses to distance itself from the science that helped to create it. We wouldn't even know that lead, DDT, smoking, or any of these "bad" things were "bad" if it weren't for science. We wouldn't have the mechanisms for keeping ourselves healthy and having clean air/water (e.g. EPA, CDC, etc...) and we would still be using pseudoscience to determine what was "bad." This regression frightens me so I defend the use of empirical information everywhere. Because ultimately, if the science I do isn't used there is no point in doing it.

  7. Additionally, here is a link that supports Andrew's approach ( Apparently, normally in order for people to convince each other of anything they need to "lead with t...he moral to the facts a fighting chance." Also, here is an example of the sort of thing I fear will happen if the mainstream abandons science for pure environmentalism ( I think unwarranted anxiety and misdirection of effort can be a dangerous thing to build up in society (i.e. I will fight it at every corner).

  8. I think the reality though isn't whether pure environmentalism wins or moderate environmentalism but whether the environmental movement is able to maintain its strength in the government at all. An example is the EPA, which despite countles...s successes from that have led to dramatic improvements in water and air quality(, is under attack and is likely to face large budget cuts. The EPA is the basic governmental agency that monitors, regulates, and protects our environment and they are fighting hard to maintain their budget. The fact of the matter is we both believe that the environment needs more protecting but just disagree about the exact way to go about it. Personally, I think we need to strengthen the foundations of environmentalism (like the EPA) that have helped to create lasting a meaningful policy and education. I suppose we could call these agencies that fail to protect us from everything "authority" and rebel against it, but I would prefer to work alongside the agencies that helped to legitimize environmentalism and assist in making it even stronger. It takes only an instant to destroy something but creating something of meaning takes a lifetime. I am as impatient as you to see real improvements in our environment but what if the "authority" you are rebelling against your strongest ally? I think you may be surprised to find that within the agencies that create these environmental policies there are many people who share your concerns about the thousands of chemicals making it into our water systems.