Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Precautionary Principle

When I worked at one of Canada’s leading environmental organizations, the application of something called the “precautionary principle” was part of daily life.

The concept is simple: if you have enough scientific evidence to suggest that an action may cause harm to the environment or human health, but not enough evidence to assert the connection, you act in a way that protects the environment or human health, even if it has a negative impact on economic health.

(For definitions from a variety of places, type the following into Google – define: precautionary principle).

The problem with the concept of the precautionary principle is that it’s darned hard to convince industry and government to apply it.

Today in the New York Times, an old story with a new twist. California Wants to Serve a Warning With Fries

French fries and potato chips that are fried at high heat create acrylamide. Acrylamide has been linked to cancer in lab mice and rats. Do chips and fries cause cancer in humans? We’re not sure, but we do know that many substances that turn cells cancerous in mice and rats do the same to human cells. This is a situation where the precautionary principle should apply.

According to the article, the number one, most consumed food in American restaurants is French fries. Americans spend an estimated $4 billion a year on fries and $3 billion a year on potato chips.

The FDA and, of course, industry, are opposed to any labeling which would tell consumers that fries may be linked to cancer. But the state of California is going to court to force the issue under Proposition 65, which forces the state to regulate chemicals that are known to cause cancer or reproductive harm and to force manufacturers to label their products or otherwise warn consumers. Acrylamide is a chemical that has a variety of industrial uses, such as paint solvents and fertilizer, which all carry warning labels.

But, industry argues, the acrylamide that is found in chips and fries is not added, but happens as part of the natural cooking process (now, many would argue that deep frying at high heat is not actually a very natural cooking process, being quite a new way to prepare food, and, as most agree, not usually a healthy cooking style, regardless of acrylamide), and so should not be regulated - that is, warning labels should not apply.

The New York Times article is worth reading. And once you’ve read it, I defy you to put forth an argument that convincingly asserts that cancer is NOT a political disease.


Blogger Herbinator said...

I believe cancer IS a political disease. That is one reason why I'm in the Green Party of Canada. So do they!

September 21, 2005  
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November 29, 2005  

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