LETTER:While scientists look for proof, people are being poisoned

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The Independent Online
ACCORDING to Steve Connor, ("Why be so careless with the facts?", 4 June), the alternative to taking action when we identify the potential for serious harm is to do nothing - just commission more research. We could gamble and take his advice, leave scientists to work their way through the hundreds of chemicals which could harm human health, trying to find the culprit. Of course, we will then probably hear that the proof only applies to laboratory animals and we cannot be sure that the chemicals affect humans - be it the size of penises, sperm count, cancer or whatever.

Or, as in the case of the 600 deaths as a result of the Thorp radioactive discharges, we will be told these are theoretical not real deaths. (The calculation was never challenged, just the interpretation.)

Crying "more research" creates the expectation that scientists will come up with clear-cut evidence. This is a rather naive and misleading view of science. Establishing "safe" levels of chemicals one by one has proved an impossible task.The reality of the world is complex mixtures in a complex environment, impossible to model with any degree of certainty.

Although some of the chemicals that are thought to have caused the reduced size of penises in the Taiwanese study are no longer produced, they are still needlessly entering the environment. The UK government recently approved the dumping of the Brent Spar, a disused oil rig, in the North Sea. The rig has PCBs among the long list of toxins on board, which will be dumped with it. PCBs are also leaking daily from landfill sites.Other chemicals such as dioxins, which are also implicated, are still being produced and polluting our rivers and seas.

In the meantime, attitudes summarised by Steve Connor prevent us from asking common-sense questions in the name of science - questions like "Can we avoid discharging toxic chemicals?" or "Are there other products we can use?". These questions may be unpalatable to those industries that continue to profit from pollution, but science should not be used to justify their continued abuse of the environment. Scientific research will continue to be vitally important to help guide our actions, but how to act in the face of uncertainty is a social debate, not a scientific matter.

Sue Mayer

Director of Science, Greenpeace

London N1

I AM a director of a company in the chemical industry which has been under heavy attack from Greenpeace for the past few years. We accept their right to raise issues they believe are of public concern and, if they can justify their claims scientifically, industry must either produce a sound scientific refutation, or accept constraints on its activity.

What we cannot accept are shrill claims for legislation and product bans on the basis of assertions about possible environmental effects predicated on distorted data. The chemical industry is having to spend large sums of money to protect its products from quite specious claims. Greenpeace may regard the threat to jobs implicit in this diversion of resources as a valuable contribution to deindustrialisation; industry would prefer to invest the money in more socially valuable ways.

Peter Hollins

Overijse, Belgium