Deadly peril in our culture of denial

Asbestos, radiation, now BSE ... ministers always act too late, writes Geoffrey Lean
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The Independent Online
HERE, unforgivably, we go again. The Government's handling of the BSE crisis is the latest result of a culture of denial that has mismanaged hazard after hazard, from asbestos to lead in petrol, from radiation to acid rain, from pesticides to threats to the ozone layer.

The pattern is scandalously repetitive: the long outright denial of danger, the reliance on a limited range of selected scientific advice, the marginalisation and ridicule of experts who issue warnings, the demand for proof, the reluctant half-measures, and, finally, after the damage is long done, the hurried and humiliating U-turn.

Wednesday's abrupt announcement of a suspected link between BSE and human brain disease - on the day that a letter was to go to schools recommending they put beef back on their menus - differed only in the size of the potential disaster.

Once again, as with asbestos and radiation, the authorities have only accepted the possibility of danger when confronted with corpses. This is a recipe for catastrophe since the diseases caused by many pollutants have as long a latency. Asbestos, for example, was not properly regulated until the early 1980s, and so its toll is still rising: it will soon overtake car accidents as the main cause of premature death in Britain. Ministers delayed phasing out lead in petrol, despite compelling US evidence of damage to children's brains, until similar effects were found in British children - as if there were some great physiological difference between them.

Demanding proof of damage to health betrays a misunderstanding of science. Proof is hard to establish: just look at the long wrangle over smoking and cancer. Governments should stick to the "precautionary principle", increasingly enshrined in international environmental treaties, that action should be taken in time to avoid serious risks turning into disasters.

Professor Derek Bryce-Smith warned of the dangers of lead in petrol from the 1950s onwards - he was ridiculed and marginalised by the medical and political establishment. Alice Stewart, who first warned of the dangers of radiation in pregnancy, came under similar assault. One of Britain's top officials told me that Professor Irving Selicoff, who did more than anyone to sound the alarm on asbestos, was "evil".

Those, like Professor Richard Lacey and Dr Harash Narang, whose warnings about BSE now stand vindicated, have also suffered. Lacey has been labelled "politically suspect" while Narang was fired from his job at the Public Health Laboratory Service.

Labour governments have followed this pattern as well as Conservative ones. But Thatcherism added two new dimensions. First, it stressed cost- benefit-analysis before taking decisions on pollution and health. Britain's new Environment Agency, which starts work next week, is required to pay particular attention to this. But the costs of curbing a hazard are immediate and quantifiable, and they fall heavily on a distinct and vociferous industry; the benefits of avoiding a putative epidemic are unproveable and hard to assess, and scattered among the population.

Worse, ministers have scrapped regulations designed to protect the public. Their de-regulation drive has recently allowed manufacturers to use toxic wastes as fuel. Last week, a leaked letter from the chairman of the Health and Safety Executive warned that cuts were endangering its ability to do its job. As we report on page 2, the incoming Thatcher government scrapped controls, proposed by Labour in the late 1970s, on feeding sheep meat to cattle.

Perhaps ministers will learn from the BSE fiasco. But don't bet on it. Bet instead on a similar culture of denial over the next big threat, a decline in male fertility from the use of chemicals that mimic the effects of oestrogen. We should see early evidence of the Government's attitude on this some time next month.

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