In­sec­ti­cides, raw milk, coal — bad choices take a toll

The Mercury News Weekend - - OPINION - By Dr. Henry I. Miller Henry I. Miller, a physi­cian and molec­u­lar bi­ol­o­gist, is the Robert Wes­son Fel­low in Sci­en­tific Phi­los­o­phy and Pub­lic Pol­icy at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity’s Hoover In­sti­tu­tion. He was the found­ing di­rec­tor of the FDA’s Of­fice of Biotech­nol

With phrases like “bet­ter safe than sorry” and “look be­fore you leap,” it’s clear that con­cerns about risk are a part of our psy­che.

Un­for­tu­nately, when we take those cliches to heart, we of­ten end up plagued by an­other: “Out of the fry­ing pan and into the fire.”

Aca­demics who study risk call those sit­u­a­tions “re­gret­table sub­sti­tu­tions,” which oc­cur when in­di­vid­u­als, com­pa­nies or govern­ments sub­sti­tute pro­cesses, pro­ce­dures or in­gre­di­ents that prove to be in­fe­rior or ac­tu­ally harm­ful, com­pared to what ex­isted be­fore.

A pro­to­typ­i­cal ex­am­ple was the EU’s ac­tivists-in­sti­gated 2013 ban on some uses of cer­tain state- of-the-art in­sec­ti­cides, sup­pos­edly to pro­tect bee pop­u­la­tions. ( The ban was mis­guided from the start be­cause of per­sua­sive ev­i­dence that these neon­i­coti­noid in­sec­ti­cides do not, in fact, ex­ert sig­nif­i­cant ef­fects on bees.)

The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion’s Joint Re­search Cen­tre, which pro­vides in­de­pen­dent sci­en­tific ad­vice to sup­port EU pol­icy, in Jan­uary com­pleted an anal­y­sis of the ef­fects of the ban.

Its con­clu­sions are dev­as­tat­ing: (1) the use of re­stricted sub­stances plum­mets; (2) farm­ers re­place them with other sub­stances (mainly pyrethroids, which are sprayed, rather than used to treat seeds); (3) there are fewer seed but more soil and leaf ap­pli­ca­tions (which cre­ate wider ex­po­sures to hu­man and other an­i­mals, in­clud­ing bees); (4) al­ter­na­tive seed treat­ments are less ef­fec­tive; (5) pest-man­age­ment be­comes more co­stand time-in­ten­sive; and (6) pest stresses on agri­cul­ture in­crease, with no ben­e­fit to ben­e­fi­cial in­sects. Re­gret­table, in­deed. An ex­am­ple that con­cerns U. S. pub­lic health au­thor­i­ties is the con­sump­tion of raw milk in place of the com­mon pas­teur­ized va­ri­ety.

The Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion es­ti­mates that raw milk caused about 760 ill­nesses and 22 hos­pi­tal­iza­tions a year from 2009 to 2014, mostly from Sal­mo­nella and Campy­lobac­ter bac­te­ria.

It’s a re­gret­table sub­sti­tu­tion: “Un­pas­teur­ized milk, con­sumed by only 3.2 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, and cheese, con­sumed by only 1.6 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, caused 96 per­cent of ill­nesses caused by con­tam­i­nated dairy prod­ucts.”

Some re­gret­table sub­sti­tu­tions by govern­ments have se­ri­ous con­se­quences.

In re­cent decades, the U.K. gov­ern­ment has pro­vided fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives to en­cour­age a shift of ve­hi­cles to diesel engines be­cause lab­o­ra­tory tests sug­gested it would cut harm­ful emis­sions.

How­ever, in real-world driv­ing con­di­tions, it turned out that diesel cars emit five times as much emis­sions of ni­tro­gen ox­ides as in the tests.

Fol­low­ing the Ky­oto Treaty of the 1990s, the rest of the EU also en­cour­aged the switch to diesel.

The re­sult was air qual­ity in some ma­jor cities, such as Lon­don and Paris, that at times is as bad as Bei­jing or New Delhi.

An­other Euro­pean ex­am­ple is the harm to the Ger­man econ­omy done by phas­ing out nu­clear power as a re­ac­tion to the Fukushima melt­down. Ger­many has force-fed hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars into so­lar and wind power, rais­ing en­ergy costs.

A Der Spiegel head­line lamented, “How Elec­tric­ity Be­came a Lux­ury Good.”

A spike in prices isn’t the only side ef­fect of such re­gret­table sub­sti­tu­tions.

The shut­down of two nu­clear power plants in the Ten­nessee Val­ley in the 1980s caused a shift in elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion to coal-fired power plants, sub­stan­tially in­creas­ing air pol­lu­tion in the re­gion.

A study pub­lished in the jour­nal Na­ture En­ergy found that in coun­ties with the great­est in­creases in air pol­lu­tion fol­low­ing the nu­clear shut­down, av­er­age birth weights (a pre­dic­tor of health) de­creased by about 5 per­cent.

To end up with fewer re­grets, we should be wary of swap­ping the devil we know for the devil we don’t.

In other words, let science, in­stead of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness and the cyn­i­cal agen­das of spe­cial in­ter­ests, show the way.

In re­cent decades, the UK gov­ern­ment has pro­vided fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives to en­cour­age a shift of ve­hi­cles to diesel engines be­cause lab­o­ra­tory tests sug­gested it would cut harm­ful emis­sions. How­ever, in real-world driv­ing con­di­tions, it turned out that diesel cars emit five times as much emis­sions of ni­tro­gen ox­ides as in the tests.

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