How Safe … and for whom?

Securing the safety of our children, family and co-workers is, apparently, increasingly important in many countries around the world. Governments continually pass legislation to restrict certain behaviours as well as products that could potentially cause harm. But are we going too far in wanting to remove all potential risks from our daily lives … and can our obsession with increasing safety actually cause harm?

In attempting to pass strict new regulations of pesticides, the European Commission and some in the European Parliament may be attempting to create a safer world. It is fairly easy for politicians and bureaucrats to argue in favour of certain regulations based on the idea that they will reduce our exposure to harmful chemicals. Dan Jorgensen, a Danish MEP, recently explained how he worked with an activist group to test the pesticide residues on fruit and vegetables bought in a supermarket within the European Parliament. Jorgensen reported that many different pesticides were found on the produce and he used that fact as part of his justification of pushing forward with the controversial amendments to Directive 91/414 .
The great shame is that Jorgensen didn’t engage with unbiased scientists to conduct the testing and interpret the results. Undoubtedly there were pesticide residues on the produce … but so what? What does that actually mean for human health and the environment? It isn’t enough to simply find the presence of a chemical; one has to connect the dots and prove that that chemical is responsible for causing harm to human health or the environment, excluding all other possible cause of harm. And once that has been done, logically one would want to know how serious and widespread that harm is and how that compares with the benefits of using the chemical.

It seems however that in selling regulations supposedly designed to protect people, evidence of harm is not required; the mere presence of a man-made chemical is sufficient. Jorgensen and others would do well to read the worlds of two world renowned scientists, Bruce Ames and Lois Gold. Their work assessing the risks posed by man-made chemicals is enlightening and should be made widely available in Brussels.

Ames and Gold show that most cancers are caused by smoking, dietary imbalances, chronic infections (which is more of a problem in developing countries) and hormonal factors influenced by lifestyle. Around half the chemicals ever tested are known to be carcinogenic, but because we typically ingest them in low doses, they do not pose a threat. The synthetic chemicals that we are exposed to are not important when it comes to human cancer. Almost all of the carcinogens that we are exposed to are not from synthetic chemicals, but from natural chemicals found in food such as broccoli, carrots, potatoes, coffee, lime … and on and on and on.

When regulators attempt to make our lives safer by regulating synthetic chemicals, they end up costing industry, taxpayers and consumers billions of Euros. Where are the benefits when the main risks from cancer don’t come from the chemicals but from our lifestyle? Furthermore insofar as the regulations increase the cost of food (as the new EU regulations would), they reduce our consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables, which could worsen cancer rates, especially for the poor.

Regulators and politicians seems to think that if these products are banned, chemical companies will be motivated to go out and develop new, safer chemicals. How this will happen with a regulatory system that is not based on scientifically rigorous risk-assessments is anybody’s guess. This idea also lays bare a worrying lack of understanding of business incentives as well as a complete disregard for the unintended consequences of regulations that will harm the poor in the EU and far beyond.

As has been described here and elsewhere, these regulations are likely to make the use of chemicals in farming and public health programs harder to use and more scarce. Perhaps before any EU Commissioner or Parliamentarian promotes the regulations, they should be made to spend a month living and surviving on a small holder subsistence farm in a malarial part of Africa. Perhaps then they would get a better understanding of the value of modern chemicals and the real dangers posed by a world in without pesticides.

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  1. They are only good at putting taxes and in embracing any un risk assessed flash news.

    I wonder if they have ever ploughed a piece of earth, attended their crop for more than a year and fought against frost, heat and various crop infections. Yald looks as non important in these discussions, how strange.

    To regulate pesticides such that the adequqte quantities are used and the pepple are properly trained in its delivery is important, not its ban unless demonstrated.

    But then I guess they wouldn’t say anything if people eating almonds from an infested (beacuse untreated by man’s pesticides) almond tree died of arsenic poisoning, since it’s natural!

    Nice article

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