New technologies have sometimes had very harmful effects, but in many cases the early warning signs have been suppressed or ignored. The second volume of “Late Lessons from Early Warnings, Volume II” released by European Environment Agency (EEA) on January 23 investigates specific cases where danger signals have gone unheeded, in some cases leading to deaths, illness and environmental destruction.
The first volume of “Late Lessons”, published in 2001, was a ground-breaking report detailing the history of technologies subsequently found to be harmful. The new 750-page volume includes 20 new case studies, with far-reaching implications for policy, science and society.
Case studies include the stories behind industrial mercury poisoning; fertility problems caused by pesticides; hormone-disrupting chemicals in common plastics; and pharmaceuticals that are changing ecosystems. The report also considers the warning signs emerging from technologies currently in use, including mobile phones, genetically modified organisms and nanotechnology.
The historical case studies show that warnings were ignored or sidelined until damage to health and the environment was inevitable. In some instances, companies put short-term profits ahead of public safety, either hiding or ignoring the evidence of risk. In others, scientists downplayed risks, sometimes under pressure from vested interests. Such lessons could help avoid harm from emerging technologies. However, five of the stories illustrate the benefits of quickly responding to early warnings.
The world has changed since the first volume of Late Lessons was published. Technologies are now taken up more quickly than before, and are often rapidly adopted around the world. This means risks may spread faster and further, the report says, outstripping society’s capacity to understand, recognise and respond to these effects in time to avoid harm.
The report recommends the wider use of the ‘precautionary principle’ to reduce hazards in cases of new and largely untested technologies and chemicals. It states that scientific uncertainty is not a justification for inaction, when there is plausible evidence of potentially serious harm.
Such a precautionary approach is nearly always beneficial – after analysing 88 cases of supposed ‘false alarm’, report authors found only four clear cases. The report also shows that precautionary actions can often stimulate rather than stifle innovations.
- Science should acknowledge the complexity of biological and environmental systems, particularly where there may be multiple causes of many different effects, the report says. It is increasingly difficult to isolate a single agent and prove beyond doubt that it causes harm. A more holistic view taking many different disciplines into account would also improve the understanding and prevention of potential hazards.
- Policy makers should respond to early warnings more rapidly, the report says, particularly in cases of large scale emerging technologies. It proposes that those causing any future harm should pay for the damage.
- Risk assessments can also be improved, the report says, by embracing uncertainty more broadly and acknowledging what is not known. For example, ‘No evidence of harm’ has often been misinterpreted to mean ‘evidence of no harm’ when the relevant research was not available.
- The report calls for new forms of governance involving citizens in choices about innovation pathways and risk analysis. This would help to reduce exposure to hazards and encourage innovations with broader societal benefits. Greater interaction between business, governments and citizens could foster more robust and diverse innovations at less cost to health and the environment.