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Not Proven Safe versus Not Proven Harmful: The precautionary principle & your health

Not Proven?

Assume because it’s for sale, it’s safe? Don’t.
In North America, when we reach for a bottle of sunscreen, buy a “safe” baby bottle, or open a box of cereal, we assume that the chemicals inside are proven safe, but many of these chemicals go from the chemists’ lab to market, untested, in a matter of weeks. The public doesn’t get to know the formulation, or even the name, of most of these chemicals. And it can take years of research for independent scientists just figure out the name and structure. Then, to study its effects, the scientists have to convince someone to fund the research.

The result is that of the many thousands of chemicals currently in use in North America, fewer than 200 have received the most rudimentary safety testing. And even when we know that these are bad, take Formaldehyde–a Level One Known Human Carcinogen–they are still released in one-out-of-five beauty care products, including numerous baby shampoos and soaps.

Not everyone does it this way.

The EU, for instance, takes a more precautionary approach to chemicals requiring companies to demonstrate that new chemicals are safe before being allowed for sale. This approach has led to the development of their new standard REACH which says that chemicals must be tested for human safety before being allowed to be used in commercial products. Unsafe chemicals must also be replaced by safer alternatives. It seems pretty obvious to enact such legislation in North America, but the way things work is almost the opposite.

While not proven safe, it can be equally hard for a scientist to “prove” a chemical dangerous to humans. The most conclusive studies are randomized controlled trials: you have two groups of people, everything is exactly the same for both of them, except one gets exposed to lots of something awful (say, cigarette smoke or DDT). Then you wait and see what happens. However, because we can’t do human studies on known or suspected toxins AND in real life we can’t limit our human exposure to just one toxin (when we are exposed to a myriad of them with every breath, bite, and drink), thus it become impossible to “prove” a chemical is dangerous. So we are left with a lot of studies focused on diseased rats, long-term human observations, and a bunch of suspected—but not proven—toxins. Cases in point on this difficulty would include: BPA (known hormone-mimicker) used in baby bottles, melamine (causes kidney damage) found in some baby formula, and parabens (cancer-causers) found in many beauty products. Or, even, look how long it took before we were able to say we had “proven” cigarettes cause cancer.

Let’s demand a precautionary principle in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico too.

Precautionary principle defined (from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

The precautionary principle or precautionary approach states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an action.
The principle is used by policy makers to justify discretionary decisions in situations where there is the possibility of harm from taking a particular course or making a certain decision when extensive scientific knowledge on the matter is lacking. The principle implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk. These protections can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result.
In some legal systems, as in the law of the European Union, the application of the precautionary principle has been made astatutory requirement in some areas of law.

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