The ban on Maggi opens a Pandora's box on the shadowy world of chemicals that imperil human life
IJUNE, the government banned Maggi as it was found N to contain levels of lead and monosodium glutamate (msg) in excess of the legal threshold. Predictably, the scandal led to a cacophony of opinions in the media. Consumer activists blamed Nestle for knowingly misleading the public,while sceptics described the ban as high-handed and presumptuous.
Nestle’s guilt is a matter of investigation, but whether msg is safe for public consumption remains a moot question. Even though science doesn’t include it in the rogue’s gallery, it continues to be a villain in public perception.
The fact that the market for instant noodles has crashed by 90 per cent might suggest that consumers have chosen to err on the side of caution. However, an individual’s decision to forsake Maggi or not has perhaps less to do with science than with a complex skein of personal beliefs, say for instance, an antipathy for government or, for that matter,for corporations.
Nevertheless the question about msg’s safety is both a question of and about science. Despite the laity’s steadily eroding faith in the ideology of science, it remains the best arbiter of disputes about the nature of material reality.
However, when it comes to deciphering the complex relationship between chemicals such as msg and the human body, science vacillates between intelligent guesswork and fraudulent statistics. Unlike in the Newtonian universe,there are no verifiable certitudes here.
It’s a painstaking task to uncover the elliptical imprint a chemical leaves on the human body.Typically,it takes no less than a decade to gather evidence before science can come to a reasonable conclusion. The trajectory of ddt best illustrates this dilemma.Invented in 1874,it was used extensively the world over till 1962 when Rachel Carson exposed its nefarious character in her famous book Silent Spring. It took another decade for science to recommend a ban,and that too only on the farms.
ddt is the first in a long list of chemicals whose dark side was revealed much after damage had been done.Many pesticides currently in use are suspected to be carcinogenic, but science won’t condemn them until it is presented with at least the gun,if not the smoking gun.This is no less true of hazardous chemicals found in toys, cosmetics, water and processed food.
At present, scientists are focused on individual chemicals. This is an incredibly herculean task—there are about 80,000 chemicals registered in the US, with 700 new chemicals added every year. International conventions on regulating hazardous chemicals, namely Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, have succeeded in eliminating some,but it’s still a drop in the ocean.
The situation turned grimmer last month when a global review concluded that chemicals, while harmless on their own in low doses, might combine conspiratorially with others to trigger cancer. This view was backed by a recent Danish study that found that even small doses of chemicals in food products could act in concert to sabotage human biology. It all sounds absurdly Sisyphean if scientists keep populating the world with newer chemicals even as older ones mess up the natural order of things.In fact,chemicals have so pervasively colonised our world that they could be described as one of the key drivers of what is being theorised as the Anthropocene,an epoch characterised by radically transformative events such as nuclear explosions, climate change and mass species extinction.
As the late German sociologist Ulrich Beck said, “Neither science, nor the politics in power, nor the mass media, nor business, nor the law nor even the military are in a position to define or control risks rationally.”
Individuals must fend for themselves.