Confusion over chemical safety

A new poll for the Scientific Alliance finds that scare stories have left the public unsure who to trust.

Mia Nybrant

Topics Science & Tech

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The difference that manmade chemicals have made to our lives is hard to quantify. Their benefits are innumerable, from the drugs used to treat cancers to the coating used to produce our favourite DVD. Yet scare stories based on the risks that chemicals pose to human health and the environment currently far outweigh the media coverage of their positive contributions to society.

This coverage has resulted in an atmosphere of mistrust and confusion. A recent MORI poll for the Scientific Alliance showed that the British public lacks trust in any particular source of information about chemicals. But why is public understanding of the science and risks of chemicals so poor?

Mistrust and confusion on chemicals have been sown by the anti-chemical lobby, which encourages the public to fear all chemicals unnecessarily. Perhaps worse are the distortions induced by scientific research designed by environmental campaigners to prove a point, for example using studies of unrealistically high concentrations of particular chemicals as proof of the need to invoke the precautionary principle.

But rather than campaigners becoming the main authorities on chemicals, the MORI poll shows that the public has become unsure whom to trust. Only three in 10 said that they trusted anti-chemical groups, and the majority of those were aged between 45 and 64.

Respondents to the poll were given a wide list of sources, including various types of scientist, environmental activists, government, and the media, and asked which they would trust to tell the truth about risks from chemicals used in household goods. No single source stood out as being much more widely trusted than any other, and none was trusted by more than a third overall. Even scientists were not widely perceived as a reliable source of information, with government scientists trusted only by 14 percent and university scientists by 29 percent, gaining strongest support from those aged 25 and below.

In this atmosphere of confusion, the most important thing is for the public to be aware of the science behind chemicals, and understand the risk assessment that has to be made. Scientists and industry therefore have a responsibility to clear up the confusion by publicising the facts with an accurate interpretation, and rebuilding confidence in science.

Based on an assumption that all chemicals are ‘guilty until proven innocent’, the precautionary principle may appear superficially attractive to a public encouraged to demand the elimination of all risk. But many chemicals with major benefits, including to health and the environment, would fall foul of a blanket application of this approach. Aspirin is a powerful example – its advantages as an everyday painkiller and a preventative medicine for patients at risk from heart attacks or strokes outweigh the manageable risk that it may increase gastrointestinal bleeding.

So even if a chemical has hazardous properties, scientific understanding and clear guidelines for its management and use enable us to benefit from helpful properties, while preventing unacceptable risks to human health or the environment. The risks of missing out on the beneficial properties of chemicals, and of jeopardising future key advancements for human health and the environment, are all too often omitted from the equation.

Sound science and a realistic understanding of risk must be placed at the heart of the debate. Only then will we be able to develop sensible approaches to managing the risks from chemicals while deriving maximum benefit. The unscientific use of scare stories and distorted studies of chemicals safety serve only to spread confusion and mistrust. They bring us no closer to an understanding and sensible management of the benefits, and risks, associated with all chemicals, whether natural or manmade.

Instead, scientists need to stand up against this and promote the facts – even (perhaps especially) where the science does not easily lend itself to soundbites and lurid headlines. Only through rebuilding public trust by promoting sound science can we hope for a sensible consensus to emerge.

Scientific Alliance brings together scientists and others with an interest in the environment to offer a scientific approach to the environmental debate. The aims of the organisation are to promote sound science in the environmental debate, to elevate the scientific arguments throughout the policymaking process, and to facilitate an informed dialogue between all stakeholders involved in the environmental debate through the media, events and publications.

The poll was conducted by MORI on behalf of the Scientific Alliance. A representative quota sample of 2019 adults aged 15+ across the UK was interviewed. Interviews were conducted face-to-face, in-home between 17 and 22 July 2003. Data are weighted to the known national population profile. More information about the poll is available from the Scientific Alliance or MORI websites.

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Topics Science & Tech


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