The Joys of "Acceptable Risk"

In the hard world of war there is a terrifying phrase which excuses the killing of innocents in the planning of military actions. That phrase is "Collateral Damage".

This seemingly simple phrase concerns the calculations made in respect to losses to the advancing army's own troops and equipment and potential damage to civilians, buildings and communications.
When these calculations are made the strategists have in their minds a figure for losses which they consider to be "acceptable".

In war many things become "acceptable" which no sane man or woman would dare accept in times of peace.
The soldier is trained to kill when told to kill but in civilian life if he kills it is rightly described as murder.

Pesticides kill and maim but they are a silent and invisible killer.
As with radiation the individual cannot see if the food is contaminated with dangerous levels of pesticides. We rely entirely on trust that those who produce our food are working to the highest possible standards and that our food is safe to eat.

Those who produce our food rely entirely on the advice given to them that the chemicals and methods they use are also safe and that their work will not endanger the health of themselves, their own families or the public to which they sell their produce.
To them there was no risk because they were informed that the chemicals they used were tested thoroughly and proven safe before they were permitted to buy them from their suppliers.

The suppliers of chemicals to agriculture are also given to understand that the chemicals they sell are of the highest standard and therefore they too see no risk except for the immediate advice they must give on the use of protective clothing.
They too are given to understand that the chemicals are safe and that they have been properly tested so that they present no risk to the final consumer - which includes members of their own families.

So where does the phrase "acceptable risk" originate?

The chemical companies produce chemicals which must pass through a wide range of tests to indicate if there is a potential to cause harm to humans, animals or the environment.
On the basis of those tests, no matter what criticisms we may have of them or their relevance to what happens in the real world, those chemicals are put forward for a marketing license to the regulatory authorities.

The regulatory authorities examine the data which may well show damage to certain organisms at certain levels of exposure.
The Regulators then make their calculations as to whether or not that chemical or group of chemicals is safe for its intended use.
For example some chemicals may be deadly toxic to some forms of life but they may be relatively safe at low doses for other creatures.
"Safe" levels are then calculated for the uses proposed.

It is known that there are individuals even within the same species who will be more susceptible to a given toxin than others, either through genetic variations or environmental factors.
For example some substances such as selenium have very narrow bands between levels that are essential for life and levels that are extremely toxic so what may be a safe supplementation level in an area low in selenium could be dangerous in areas where levels are high.

Similarly there are individuals whose circumstances are such that any excess level of toxins could be dangerous to their well being and such groups would include those already poisoned by a chemical and those whose detoxification systems are compromised by disease or by medical treatments such as chemotherapy.
Obviously such people will, if they are properly informed, be able to avoid areas where they know that toxins which could harm them are present and in that way they can protect themselves from further harm.

This is not the case with pesticides however because there is no way that an individual can know if the food or the immediate environment is contaminated with those chemicals which could be dangerous to their lives.

No food label states the pesticide content, not even when sprouting suppressants or insecticides are deliberately applied after harvesting the crop.
Few, if any, fields carry warnings to pedestrians, cyclists or motorists that there may be chemicals lifting off of the crop by evaporation or wind. Fewer still will realise that they may be exposed to drift from crop protection operations being performed several miles away, until they taste the spray on their lips.

The regulators have set what they believe to be a "safe" level of exposure throughout the life of the average person and with built in safety margins and those levels become set in stone.
Professional workers will be exposed to the same levels as are the general public before they begin work and yet the levels for exposures at work are based on those same safety assumptions.
The professional is therefore exposed to at least double the normal rate but is supposedly protected by the specialist clothing now worn. Such clothing was not advised or available to those working in the industry until recent decades and there have been serious doubts raised regarding the effectiveness of suits currently available.

As already mentioned the Regulators set the "safe" levels based on assumptions which may include mathematical predictions of chemical half-life, concentrations in the final product, and the potential harm caused by chemical breakdown products which may be more toxic than the original product.
This, as with all statistical predictions, can be an accurate assessment or it may be entirely misleading as has been found with the many chemicals hailed as wonder pesticides which have now been withdrawn on safety grounds.
As suggested earlier exposures to most of these substances can be avoided by the susceptible group, given the information, but they cannot avoid food which may contain the dangerous substance unless there is adequate labelling.

The peanut allergy problem is a case in point. Without labelling a sufferer may unwittingly eat a product containing peanuts and such an exposure has often proved fatal. (few realise that peanuts are recognised as absorbing large quantities of pesticides and that this may partially explain the dramatic reaction).
Some drugs can have similarly tragic effects.

No food label declares the pesticide residues which may be found and yet those poisoned by pesticides or who are susceptible to them would be wise to avoid foods in which pesticides are present.

We have then a growing number of people for whom further pesticide exposure could present a danger and yet the "safe" levels are set for all of the population.

Many of these people will be made ill by those "safe" levels and some may suffer from resulting illnesses which may bring them an early death. Cancers may be triggered or the additional toxic burden may adversely affect the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys or the nervous system.
Such things are what the Regulators refer to as the "acceptable risk".

We are never told the exact definition of what they consider is the point at which "unacceptable risk" levels demand action.

The problem with such opinion is that these risks are only "acceptable" if they happen to someone else.

None of us, given sound mind, would wish to be given a fatal disease and we are all shocked and frightened when a loved one is diagnosed with an incurable illness.
For some reason we are all prepared, it seems, to allow the vulnerable in our society to be forced to take just such risks.
The Regulators repeat the mantra that "we would not hesitate to restrict the use of a chemical which presented 'unacceptable risk'."
In reality however the chemicals are rarely banned until the pressure on their continued use becomes too much for them to ignore.

Since these pages originally appeared on the web we are informed that some 50% of the pesticides currently in use will be phased out under EU regulations because the manufacturers were unable to support them with the required safety data. There have also been calls to restrict many of the substances used in the formulations because they too have been found to be dangerous to human health.

We may be prepared to ignore the risk but are we prepared to see our own lives sacrificed to what is in reality only a mathematical theory?

Dated 16/9/2000. Updated 28/02/2015.

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