Take a long look in the mir­ror, green zealots

Weekend Herald - - Viewpoints - John Roughan

You don’t need to be a meth head or sym­pa­thise with their stu­pid­ity to cel­e­brate Sir Peter Gluck­man’s re­port on the risk they pose to houses. At long last some­one has brought a sense of pro­por­tion to a ques­tion of pub­lic health and safety. Gluck­man has de­fied the ex­ces­sive cau­tion that rules so much of our lives to­day, cast­ing aside the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple that says a lack of ev­i­dence of harm does not prove some­thing is safe.

The Gov­ern­ment’s Chief Science Ad­viser has given Hous­ing Min­is­ter Phil Twyford the find­ing Twyford wanted, en­abling more state houses to be kept ten­anted, but it was coura­geous nonethe­less. Not be­cause he has threat­ened the busi­ness of fu­mi­gat­ing firms; those pose no risk to his rep­u­ta­tion, un­like fel­low sci­en­tists who as­sid­u­ously pro­mote the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple.

The morn­ing af­ter his re­port was pub­lished, an Aus­tralian pro­fes­sor com­plained that the re­port ig­nored case stud­ies she had given him show­ing health ef­fects from meth residue at lower lev­els than he was

rec­om­mend­ing as a thresh­hold for con­cern. Gluck­man replied that her stud­ies were of houses used to cook the stuff, he was talk­ing about the residue from smok­ing it.

If his re­port was re­fresh­ing to read, it was mild by com­par­i­son with the en­thu­si­as­tic re­sponse from the Green Party, usu­ally com­mit­ted to the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple.

“Hun­dreds of peo­ple have been un­nec­es­sar­ily turfed out of state homes and other houses be­cause of scare­mon­ger­ing by peo­ple with vested in­ter­ests,” fumed co-leader Marama David­son. “This has caused so much hard­ship for so many fam­i­lies with no good rea­son . . .”

It re­minded me of those ridicu­lous beach warn­ings Auck­lan­ders were given last sum­mer af­ter ev­ery rainy day. Sud­denly a 40-year-old oc­ca­sional prob­lem was el­e­vated to a ma­jor health risk posted on beaches around the re­gion ad­vis­ing us not to swim.

When I ques­tioned those warn­ings, a marine sci­en­tist ex­plained the no­tices were posted when pol­lu­tion was at a level at which 2 per cent of swim­mers on av­er­age would be­come ill. That would amount to hun­dreds of cases on a sum­mer week­end. Strange we did not hear of gas­tro out­breaks on that scale be­fore the age of ex­ces­sive pre­cau­tions.

What chance the Chief Science Ad­viser might check whether that risk war­rants beach clo­sures? Or whether rivers need to be of “swimmable” qual­ity? Or the risk plas­tics re­ally pose to fish, or the need to ban so­called “sin­gle use” su­per­mar­ket bags that serve so many se­condary uses in our house I don’t know what we’ll do with­out them.

Back in March the Econ­o­mist took a good long look at the prob­lem of dis­carded plas­tic. It noted salt wa­ter and sun­light re­duces a great deal of it to mi­cro­scopic com­pounds that can be in­gested by fish. Much of the rest is swept by cur­rents into mid-ocean “gyres” which are not par­tic­u­larly rich in fauna or bio­di­verse.

“No stud­ies have so far been per­formed to test whether tox­ins (mi­croplas­tics ab­sorbed by fish) con­cen­trate up the food chain,” it said. The only ev­i­dence of them en­ter­ing the hu­man diet in­volved mus­sels which are eaten whole. It didn’t say whether the diner sur­vived.

The ar­ti­cle also said the man­u­fac­ture of plas­tic re­leases much less car­bon diox­ide than some of the prod­ucts pro­posed to re­place it. A Bri­tish study had found “a cot­ton tote bag must be used 131 times be­fore green­house gas emis­sions from mak­ing it and trans­port­ing it im­prove on dis­pos­able plas­tic bags. The fig­ure rises to 173 times if 40 per cent of the plas­tic bags are used as bin lin­ers . . . The car­bon foot­print of a pa­per bag that is not re­cy­cled is four times that of a plas­tic bag.”

So much is be­com­ing reg­u­lated, re­stricted or taxed to­day in a way that is out of all pro­por­tion to the risk it presents. It’s be­ing done in the name of im­pos­si­ble pu­ri­tan­i­cal tar­gets, Smoke­free NZ, zero waste, net zero car­bon emis­sions . . . When the tar­get year gets near enough to see that it will not be reached, it be­comes a cue for more ex­treme mea­sures.

Smoke­free 2025 now wants health warn­ings not just on tobacco but on e-cig­a­rettes which do not pro­duce smoke. They do not burn leaf and leave tar in the lungs.

Gluck­man has said of metham­phetamine smoke residue, “No data have been re­ported re­lated to third-hand ex­po­sure sit­u­a­tions . . . To the best of our knowl­edge there is cur­rently no avail­able ev­i­dence that low level metham­phetamine ex­po­sure poses a health risk to hu­mans.”

That sort of sci­en­tific cau­tion is usu­ally a cue for health and en­vi­ron­men­tal zealots to urge that noth­ing be done un­til a risk is com­pletely ruled out, know­ing science can sel­dom do that. But this time they like the con­clu­sion and now they want vengeance for Hous­ing NZ’s pre­vi­ous pre­cau­tions. When they look for blame hand them a mir­ror.

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