Monday, December 7, 2009

Humans, labeling, and the Precautionary Principle

© 2009, Joshua Stark

Yesterday, while looking for a Christmas ornament for the top of our tree, my wife pointed out to me, on one of the boxes, the Prop. 65 warning label that came with it: a warning that the wires on the star contain lead, a substance known to cause birth defects. We both expressed our incredulity at the idea, this symbol of life and love during our darkest and coldest days, covered in a substance that we should only handle if we know we aren't going to have babies. And if we don't have young children. And if we have children who know for sure that they aren't going to have babies in the future.
Now, I'm not overly fanatical about lead, as I grew up hunting and fishing ("just bite down on the tips of the split-shot to open it up"), and I turned out alright. Maybe not all right, but alright. However, I try not to play around with God's dice, to ruin a great metaphor. So we moved on & bought another star.

This morning, I remembered the conversation, and then a story I'd heard struck me as I considered the ramifications of our decision. The story: folks fishing in backwoods lakes in Montana are finding signs at some of the lakes warning them of high mercury levels. When people are given this information, some stop fishing there, a wise decision. Instead, they drive up a few miles to the next lake, the one without a sign. Do you see where this is going?

The lake up the road has no sign because it has not been tested. The tested lake had high levels of mercury, and now the responsible agency must tell the public, but if they'd never tested it, then they cannot say anything, for a number of reasons.

Are they truly making fishing safer for the folks who eat their catch? My guess is that many, many lakes in the region are contaminated from mercury due to mining operations.

Folks get incomplete information, which is bad enough, but the nature of our responses to information given in such an open manner, via signs and warnings on packages, is to assume that we now have complete information, when we don't. What if the star we purchased has one of the hundreds of chemicals that have never been studied, but that causes some physical harm? What if the lake down the road has more mercury?

The precautionary principle would offer a solution here. The chemical one is easy: Require manufacturers to show no harm before they use a chemical. That is not only easy (though expensive), it is something I would expect conservatives and liberals to agree to - complete information before buying something. We are far beyond the ability to personally know who made our products (knowing the local salesman for the made-in-China product doesn't count) or how they are made, so putting the onus on the maker to reasonably show no harm makes sense.

The lake issue is tougher. Personally, I think the long-term damages of mercury poisoning are worth the economic risk to small communities, and I think forcing the issue would pressure folks in positions of authority to get the testing done more quickly. I'm not suggesting shutting down lakes, but instead understanding the nature of mercury on a larger scale, and then posting signs that say this lake has or hasn't been tested, and the results if it had been tested. Again, a bit more expensive. But hey, you can't outsource those jobs.

I will still buy things the origins and contents of which I don't completely know, but that is because, right now, I have to. I have no other options, except for food, which we've been working on improving in this household. This isn't good economic decisionmaking (rewarding the status quo by buying it), and it's ethically dubious, too, but the options are so limited right now, that I really don't have a choice. Over time, however, I anticipate we will move away from those far-away purchases, and buy more and more locally produced goods and services, where we can at least have a better sense of (and some control over) the regulations which guide production.


native said...

Excellent thoughts Josh!
I harbor the same sentiments about the closing of the Clear Creek Management area.

I had been visiting, camping and hunting that area since 1980, and NOW they tell me I can't go there anymore and that it is dangerous to my health! (asbestos)

Sometimes, ignorance is truly bliss!

Josh said...

Native, you make a very good point, and you bring up an interesting, complicating concept.

In the case of the mercury lakes, it's more of a "fish at your own risk" thing, which I'm more comfortable with, esp. if the property is public land.

But, I do understand that there must be a threshold for the gov't. to reach, and then it should close down places. If somebody got sick at Clear Creek, and California knew about it, California would be responsible for it.

So perhaps there should be some statistically relevant number that triggers a management decision? I don't know the answer.

Eric said...

1. Nice blog.

2. 'Statistically relevant number' and 'no harm' are tricky concepts.

For many compounds, it is easier for governments to put up signs about 'risk' than it is to evaluate the risk in a useful way.

For many compounds, there is no 'no harm' threshold that can be determined. For instance, ethidium bromide is regulated at levels that are lower than those that would cause cancer in a single person on the planet over the course of many generations. It is regulated because of the Ames test. The Ames test showed that ethidium bromide caused mutations in E. coli and so ethidium bromide was regulated. Ethidium bromide, however, has never been shown to cause mutations in humans.

So, a good sign at a lake, one that shows relative risk, might be:

'There is mercury in this lake but the drive to get here has higher risk to you than the mercury. Also, the organic produce at your farmer's market has higher risk.'

I do not expect to see such a sign. No one is paid to make one and the thoughts are too nuanced.

Josh said...

Hence, my "I don't know the answer." But I would like for us to get more information, that we may make our own decisions.

Growing up on the Sacramento Delta, I can probably tell the temperature, considering the amount of mercury I've been exposed to. However, I still don't want to screw around with it, or belittle the damage it can wreak.

However, the problem I'm trying to point out here is that when somebody gives incomplete information, but in a very open-looking manner, then people reasonably apply that information to other, similar decisions. In this case, a lack of information is assumed to be information in itself: If there is no sign at the next lake, then that means that they found no mercury there.

This is a problem, regardless of the actual truth of the sign, which I grant is debatable on a case-by-case basis.

And, thanks for checking it out here!

Eric said...

I agree with your point on lack of information. For instance, vegetables in the store seldom have a sign that says 'Not grown in America. Grown in Columbia under disgusting and unsanitary conditions.'

The lake without a sign should have an informative one. The lake with a sign should also have an informative one. Near Mammoth Lake California, there is a sign that says 'Caution. High CO2 levels' I have no idea what that sign might mean. On the other hand, someone working at a sign company now has some more money to buy their kids dinner.

Anonymous said...

I think the real problem is TMI (too much information). That Prop 65 warning about lead in the wire got you all worried about something that actually posed virtually no threat to your health. Asbestos in Clear Creek - same thing. Mercury in the lake, ditto, unless fish makes up a significant proportion of your diet.

Meanwhile, we all blithely go driving about at 65 mph, incurring tremendous risks - far beyond those of mercury poisoning, mesothelioma, or lead poisoning. But that's a familiar risk, so we don't let it bother us as much.

The search for "safe level" threshold values is doomed, because it's a value judgement. What level of risk is acceptable; what level of safety is required? Our society has become extremely averse to uncommon risks, while simultaneously ignoring common ones. We worry about chemical contaminants in our food, but the food itself (burger, fries, soda) is poisoning us.