Expert View: We can't take our pet fears abroad

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The Independent Online

In recent weeks we have been inundated with stories involving risk of one sort or another: courts forcing parents to give their children the MMR jab; airline passengers taking their claims for cases of deep vein thrombosis to the Court of Appeal; and the possible health hazards of eating genetically modified food.

If you take the UK press on trust, you might think that the decision to publish such stories is based solely on the weight of scientific evidence, and that the stories are also international in scope. However, you would be mistaken on both counts. Publication is likely to depend on whether the story is "newsworthy". The public will need to show concern about the risk in question and, ideally, the story should be driven by entrenched special interest groups or a trustworthy individual who is well known to the public.

Many (although not all) of these "scare" stories are UK-based. The risks associated with MMR jabs are, for example, not debated to the same degree on the Continent, and fears about the safety of genetically modified food are not an issue in the US, where the public has been eating the stuff for years.

If one looks at the European map, one realises that continental nations have certain "pet risk" projects of concern to policy makers. Many Swedish experts are known to regard chemicals as "poison", while their Danish counterparts are concerned about the risk of contamination from nuclear power and want Sweden to close its nuclear reactors. The Austrians tend to be similarly anti-nuclear, while the Italians worry about the threat from radiation emitted from mobile phone masts (the subject of a recent spat between the country's authorities and the Vatican).

In most cases, cultural and/ or historical factors drive these concerns. In the Seventies, the Austrians had a protracted debate about whether or not to have nuclear power. The Swedes have been concerned about chemicals since they became aware of the effects of acid rain back in the Sixties, and of the long-term threat to wildlife arising from the use of DDT in pesticides.

Matters become more complicated when policy makers in one EU member state try to transfer their concerns about their "pet risks" to an EU-wide level.

This can cause significant regulatory problems. For example, would it be fair for the Italians to take their concerns about mobile phone masts to international level via an EU regulatory directive when there is much less public concern in many other nation states? Similarly, would it be wise for the UK to export its MMR concerns to the rest of the EU - one outcome of which could be a Europe-wide epidemic of measles?

But the transference of national "pet risks" beyond their countries of origin is exactly what is happening in the EU today, as proposals are introduced for regulations on subjects ranging from chemicals to the hunting of woodcocks.

Given the diversity of concerns that exist among member states, it is little wonder the European Commission has a problem getting its regulatory directives implemented. In my opinion, the best way around this would be to strengthen the role of science and to improve communication about potential threats to our health and safety at a Europe-wide level. Discussion should involve the public and other stakeholders (an issue examined in a recent report entitled "Improving the quality of risk management in the European Union: risk communication" by Bruce Ballantine at the European Policy Centre). This would ensure that the regulations proposed are both efficient and effective.

Professor Ragnar Lofstedt is a director of the King's Centre for Risk Management at King's College London.