Chem­i­cal soup

The ban on Maggi opens a Pan­dora's box on the shad­owy world of chem­i­cals that im­peril hu­man life

Down to Earth - - COLUMN -

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.

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