Journalist: James Geary
July 28, 2003
Science can pinpoint potential
dangers from GM foods, mobile phones and household chemicals — but can't
tell us if those risks are real. What's a consumer to do?
Linda was ecstatic last summer when she learned that she was pregnant
again. But the 39-year-old mother of two was also worried, since the chances
of giving birth to a baby with Down's syndrome increase dramatically with
age. So at 12 weeks, Linda, who lives in London, decided to have the full
battery of tests that determine the risk of Down's. An ultrasound scan
measured the fluid within the neck of the fetus — the more fluid, the higher
the risk — while a blood test tracked hormone levels crucial to fetal
development. All the results came back normal except one. As a result, Linda
was told, the chance that her baby had the syndrome was one in 130 — a high
enough risk to warrant more tests. If she wanted to know for sure, her
gynecologist suggested amniocentesis, a procedure that involves drawing
fluid from the amniotic sac around the fetus. But about one in 100 times,
amnio triggers a spontaneous abortion. Should Linda take that risk in order
to settle the Down's question? It was her call: the doctor would only
present the alternatives, not give advice. "I wanted these tests because I
thought they would be reassuring," Linda says now. "But the choices they
confronted me with only increased my uncertainty."
Linda eventually decided to skip the amnio, and she gave birth to a healthy
baby girl. But her dilemma is becoming increasingly common as modern science
pinpoints ever finer gradations of risk, but is unable to tell us whether
those risks are real — and if so, whether they're worth taking. We can
measure just about everything: the number of defective genes on a
chromosome; the levels of radiation coming from our mobile phones; the
amount of microbes in our drinking water. And when something's out of
kilter, we demand a fix. But all too often there is no fix. Science can't
eliminate the risks it's so skilled at identifying.
Over the past months and years we've endured the SARS crisis, the BSE
scandal and the foot-and-mouth epidemic. We've been warned of deep-vein
thrombosis from air travel, brain cancer from mobile-phone radiation, and
mutations from genetically modified organisms. We've been told that climate
change threatens our coastlines, antibiotic-resistant viruses threaten our
children, and wayward asteroids threaten our planet. Sometimes just getting
out of bed in the morning seems too risky — especially when we consider that
it could take decades before we know if these potential dangers are real.
How worried should we be? That depends on how much uncertainty we're
prepared to live with. And these days we're prepared to live with less and
less. As science, medicine and technology make life safer, healthier and
more comfortable, our intolerance of risk is growing. Plenty of dangers have
been eliminated — childhood mortality is way down, diseases that were once
common have been eradicated, food is more plentiful and nutritious than
ever. But these advances have made us even more sensitive to the risks that
remain. "Before the umbrella, if it started to rain you got wet," says
Raffaele De Giorgi, director of the Center for the Study of Risk at Italy's
University of Lecce. "With the invention of the umbrella, the risk of
getting wet was born."
Most Europeans, for example, are alarmed by the prospect of eating GM foods,
but many will happily sit in a bar munching potato chips, smoking cigarettes
and drinking alcohol — all of which together amount to a much clearer health
risk than sipping a bowl of genetically modified tomato soup. Europeans are
suspicious of GM foods despite the absence of any proof that they are
actually unsafe. In contrast, everybody knows smoking can kill you — but 94
million people in the E.U. do it anyway. "There are discussions about health
risks that are a luxury," says Irene Lukassowitz, spokeswoman for Berlin's
Federal Institute for Risk Assessment. "By and large, we are very well-fed
and have the time to worry about even the smallest risk. Consumers want to
be protected, but prefer it if there is someone else to blame."
Helene Guldberg, a developmental psychologist at Britain's Open University,
believes that our risk- aversion poses dangers of its own. Society's
reluctance to accept the inevitable risks that accompany progress, she
argues, could slow the pace of discovery and innovation. "There can never be
a guarantee that anything is harmless," she says. "But unless there is
evidence of harm, we shouldn't worry. Without risk taking there can be no
experimentation, and therefore no progress."
Learning to live with risk is one of those quintessentially modern skills —
like learning to order a venti-skim latte or buy groceries online — but a
whole lot more difficult and important. To manage our fear of risk, we have
to come to terms with some very tricky issues. Can we trust scientists,
politicians and the media to interpret the dangers and benefits of new
technologies? When they dump the choices back in our laps and tell us to
make the decisions — test the fetus or not; eat the food or not; use the
phone or not — how do we do it? Should we just stop worrying and be happy?
To find out, Time examined the science and the hype around three
controversial issues — GM foods, mobile phones and household chemicals.
Here's our anatomy of risk.
To Eat or Not to Eat?
Looking out over a field of genetic-ally modified oilseed rape on his
810-hectare farm in Oxfordshire, 85 km northwest of London, Christopher
Lewis recalls the warm, sunny day last summer when an Oxford University
scientist came to visit. Lewis, a thoughtful man who's been a farmer for 44
of his 69 years, has been growing GM crops for the past 36 months as part of
a U.K. government study to track the impact of genetically modified
organisms on the environment. He took the researcher down to one of the
maize test fields. Conventional maize was growing on one side; on the other,
the plants were genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate, a
herbicide found in every garden store, which kills plants while leaving the
On the GM side, treated with the relatively mild glyphosate, there were
occasional clumps of small, stunted weeds as well as "midges, bees, beetles
and a pair of partridges feeding their young," Lewis remembers. On the non-
GM side — which was treated with simazine, a stronger conventional herbicide
that clears weeds but can render the soil sterile — there was nothing; no
weeds, no insects, no birds. "How can these anti-GM protesters continue down
this route?" Lewis wonders. "What more assurance do they want?"
Few Europeans share Lewis' conviction. A Eurobarometer survey carried out in
2001 found that 94% of respondents wanted the right to choose whether to
consume GM foods — and 70% don't want to eat the stuff at all. And Lewis has
paid a high price for his willingness to experiment. Anti-GM activists
ripped up his crops seven times, intimidating him and his family; and some
of his neighbors have shunned him for "meddling with nature."
Opponents of such meddling fear that the genes inserted into crops could
confer new and undesirable traits on wild species, damaging biodiversity and
creating "super-weeds." They also worry that GM foods could affect human
health in unpredictable ways. "We need to be extremely cautious, because
once the GM genie gets out of the bottle, it's going to be very difficult to
put back in," says Mike Grenville, 53, a mobile-phone industry consultant
who, last month, led a protest against GM crops in Forest Row in East
Opponents of gene modification also allege that GM crops are being foisted
on the public by agro-chemical conglomerates interested in nothing but
profit. It's true that multinationals stand to gain. These firms often
control the rights to genetically modified seeds as well as the pesticides
to which the crops are made resistant. Monsanto sells glyphosate under the
name Roundup and a variety of seeds resistant to the weedkiller as Roundup
Ready. But GM crops could benefit others too, especially farmers in the
developing world. In many countries, supplies of arable land and water are
diminishing as the demand for food increases. The U.K.'s Nuffield Council on
Bioethics, an independent think tank, recently suggested that gene
technology could improve the livelihoods of poor people in developing
countries by enabling them to increase crop yields, grow drought-resistant
plants and cultivate salinated soil.
The economic impact in the U.K., however, is likely to be minimal in the
short term, according to a new report by the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit.
Only a few GM crops so far are suited to the British climate, and public
mistrust of GM will probably ensure that the market for it is small. The
government's review of GM science, published this week, concluded that the
health risks from current products were "very low" but some uncertainties
remained, and that crop approval should be granted on a case-by-case basis.
So are GM foods safe? The results of a recent Danish trial, published by
Denmark's National Environmental Research Institute (NERI), suggest they
are. For three years, researchers at the NERI monitored fields of
conventional and GM sugar beet, the latter genetically altered to be
resistant to glyphosate. They found that the GM plots supported more plant
species and insects than the conventional plots, thus providing more food
for birds and other types of wildlife. And in May, Britain's Royal Society
produced a GM science review that "found nothing to indicate that GM foods
are inherently unsafe."
That's not good enough for Pete Riley, senior food campaigner for Friends of
the Earth. His organization's study of the chemical constituents of
genetically modified maize indicates GM foods show increases in amino acids,
the building blocks of proteins that control bodily processes. "That could
be significant in the long term," Riley says, arguing that years of exposure
to GM foods could affect muscle and organ growth.
There's been little research into how GM foods behave inside the human body.
But one study, commissioned from Newcastle University by Britain's Food
Standards Agency, found evidence that low levels of antibiotic-resistant
genes inserted into GM soya can pass into the bacteria that live inside the
gut. That's worrying, says Emily Diamand, senior food research officer for
Friends of the Earth, because "if you insert an antibiotic-resistant gene
into a crop, and then the food is broken down in your stomach, other
bacteria can pick up the gene and use it in unpredictable ways." Those
concerns were backed up last month when the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture
Organization and the who warned that a failure to rigorously study the
health effects of GM foods could prevent us from identifying GM-induced
toxic reactions, allergies and resistance to antibiotics.
"I am astonished and appalled that there have been no systematic clinical
tests of the long-term health impact of people eating GM foods," says
Michael Meacher, the former British Environment Minister who launched the
trials in which Christopher Lewis is taking part. "I am not against GM," he
says, "but I don't think anything like the right amount of testing has been
The bottom line is, there is no bottom line: no definitive proof that GM
foods damage your health, no definitive proof that they're safe. And this is
a handy point to keep in mind when trying to interpret research results:
absolute certainty is a myth.
"Science can never say there is no chance of something happening," says
Colin Blakemore, a professor of physiology at Oxford University. "All you
can do is gradually accumulate evidence that reduces the probability." Most
scientists agree that the balance of probability is that GM foods are safe.
But most will also admit they can't be sure.
What we can be sure about, though, is that Europeans want to decide for
themselves whether to eat the stuff. So in the absence of scientific
certainty, the E.U. is providing the next best thing: freedom of choice. By
the end of this year, any product with more than 0.9% of GM content must be
identified as such. Hundreds of foodstuffs — ranging from mayonnaise to
cooking oil to peanut butter and coming mostly from the U.S. and Canada —
will now require labels.
Neither side of the GM divide is likely to accept the other's results, so
the arguments both for and against are sure to continue. There is one thing,
however, on which they can agree: the customer is always right. But for
consumers who have to make their decisions without the benefit of conclusive
science, the question is simple: Feeling lucky?
Not on My Roof, S'il Vous Plait
Every season seems to bring another scary but speculative story about
purported links between mobile-phone radiation and brain damage. mobile use
may trigger premature Alzheimer's, warned Britain's Daily Mail in February,
though the study in question looked at the effect of electromagnetic
radiation on rats, not people. None of those stories has dented the
popularity of mobile handsets. Instead, what's freaking Europeans out is the
idea of electromagnetic radiation from phone masts. Marie, who asks that her
real name not be used, is a 35-year-old mother of four whose east Paris
duplex has a mast on its roof — and she's hopping mad about it. "It's just
above the older children's room," Marie says, "and they started getting
headaches several months after we moved in."
The furor over masts is strange. Mobile-phone users tend to be exposed to
much higher levels of radiation from their handsets than they are from
masts, because they are so much closer to the source. But that hasn't
stopped 320 million Europeans from buying mobile phones, or dissuaded
activists from organizing to prevent the installation of transmitters. In
March, opponents of the technology in Tiverton, Devon, used an industrial
saw to shear off bolts securing a 14-m, 2.7-ton mast to the ground. Then
they tied a rope to it and used a vehicle to pull it down.
Why all the fuss? In April, the French Environmental Health and Safety
Agency (AFSSE) released a report declaring that no health risks can be
linked to mobile phones or base stations. But a month earlier, the
Scientific Committee on Electromagnetic Fields (CSIF-CEM) published a report
stating that antennas could cause sleep disturbance and headaches and weaken
the immune system. Though the AFSSE report cleared mobile technology of any
health risks, the independent experts who compiled it called for more
research into the effect of mobile-phone radiation on children and conceded
that other effects had yet to be sufficiently explored. In other words, new
evidence might make the experts change their minds.
We can't wait for a final safety verdict; we need to decide now whether the
convenience of a mobile phone is worth the potential hazard. And we need
ways to make the risk feel acceptable. That's what is driving the popularity
of earpieces that let us move the handsets away from our heads. And
Blakemore argues for giving people a say over other controllable risks —
like the location of masts. Blakemore was a member of Britain's Independent
Expert Group on Mobile Phones, a review body set up by the government in
1999 to investigate health risks from the technology. During the preparation
of the report, the committee held a series of meetings for the general
public. To Blakemore's surprise, practically nobody complained about mobile
phones — they all complained about masts. Why? Because the benefits of
mobile phones are much clearer than the benefits of masts.
"Virtually everyone capable of lifting a mobile phone to their head has got
one," Blakemore says, "so presumably they must be making some kind of
analysis of the cost and the benefit — and they're willing to take whatever
risk they perceive. Yet when they see a mast at the end of their garden,
they see no immediate benefit. The crucial differences are psychological,
not physical." Marie disagrees. "My kids aren't aware of any media coverage
or other kinds of reports," she says. "All they know is that they started
having headaches and sleeping problems."
Janine Le Calvez, the president of the French grassroots group PRIARTEM (For
the Regulation of Mobile Telephone Base Station Implementations), objects to
having no say in where the masts are placed. "These systems were installed
without the least bit of study of their impact on health or the
environment," says Le Calvez, 53, who uses her mobile phone sparingly. "I'm
not fighting against the masts; I'm fighting against the impunity that
allows them to be placed anywhere, at any power output level." PRIARTEM
claims that there are many more people out there like Marie's kids,
otherwise healthy folks who live around the antennas and complain of
insomnia, headaches and fatigue. The AFSSE report does not dismiss these
claims, but attributes them to the anxiety produced by the masts rather than
the radiation they emit. That doesn't help Marie's kids sleep at night.
The Home Front
Elizabeth Salter-Green's two-story brick home in west London seems normal
enough. A pair of comfortable sofas face the living room fireplace, bright
yellow chairs surround the dining table, and a homey kitchen opens onto a
patio garden. But the place is unusual in at least one respect: there are no
super-strength cleaners in the house, no flame-retardant textiles or
upholstery, no dry-cleaned clothing, no fragranced bath products, and baby
Florence usually plays only with wooden toys. That's because nearly three
years ago, when she was contemplating having a child, Salter-Green — the
39-year-old director of the WWF's U.K. toxics program — decided to detoxify
In October 2000, Salter-Green underwent a fat-cell test, in which a sample
of her body fat was analyzed for the presence of 14 different toxic
chemicals. The results shocked her. Salter-Green's fat showed above-normal
levels of DDT and PCBS, organic pollutants that began to be phased out in
the 1970s because of their toxicity; lindane, a possibly carcinogenic
insecticide that's been outlawed in several European countries, but not in
the U.K.; and a cocktail of other insecticides, fungicides and industrial
Concerned about the presence of these chemicals in her body during
pregnancy, Salter-Green decided to make a change. Heavy-duty cleaners and
disinfectants were out. Dry cleaning was stopped because of chemicals used
in the process, particularly the solvent perchloroethylene, a possible human
carcinogen with suspected links to neurological and reproductive problems.
And Florence plays mostly with wooden toys because some plastic ones are
made with phthalates, which are suspected of interfering with the normal
functioning of the hormonal system. Salter-Green had a second fat-cell test
last July, three weeks before Florence was born. It showed her contaminant
levels were back within the average range. "I was motivated from a
professional point of view as well as a personal one," she says. "Half the
time I don't know if I'm doing the right thing in buying what I buy and
doing what I do. It gets so much more personal when you have kids."
Household chemicals are about as personal as modern science gets. We are
surrounded by hundreds of them every day — they're in our furnishings, our
cosmetics, our vinyl floor tiles and plastic baby bottles — but most of us
rarely think about them. We breathe them, we eat them, we absorb them
through our skin. Are they too much of a good thing?
"We have a great deal of sympathy for confused consumers who are being
frightened into believing that their health and our environment are being
threatened by chemicals," says Tim Edgar, deputy director of the European
Council for Plasticizers and Intermediates (ECPI), a Brussels-based trade
association. He cites phthalates — the world's most widely used plasticizer,
which helps soften the flexible plastics in car interiors, medical tubes
and, yes, toys — as a case in point. Because of their loose molecular
structure, some phthalate particles migrate over time. So it is possible
that they could end up in the home environment. But Edgar argues that the
amounts are "minuscule, and in many cases so low as to be immeasurable. The
problem is that studies infer a public health risk without indicating
whether the levels found actually pose any risk."
So what's a mother to do? As a first step, consider the evidence. The U.S.
Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) decided in February not to ban PVC
— which contains phthalates — in toys, stating there is "no demonstrated
health risk." Don't trust the CPSC? Then do as Salter-Green did: stay away
from products that may contain chemicals you want to avoid. To give
consumers the information they need to make such decisions, the European
Commission is set to propose new rules that will require mandatory testing
for all chemicals, including those found in household products.
Under the new system, manufacturers would be responsible for proving the
safety of any substance they produce. WWF U.K. argues that the draft
legislation should also require the industry to phase out potentially
harmful chemicals. "The chemical industry is a great generator of jobs,"
says Salter-Green. "We don't want to put them out of business. We want a
reversal of the burden of proof, where they have to prove beyond reasonable
doubt that their products are safe."
When it comes to calculating risk, reasonable doubt can be the consumer's
best friend. It's perfectly reasonable to doubt what scientists, activists,
businessmen and politicians say; to doubt hyped-up headlines that exaggerate
the benefits or dangers of new technologies. But doubt is not enough. To
take control of decisions that can affect your health, you have to do your
homework — by using the library or the Web to get more information, and
finding out whether the people praising or blaming some new advance have a
vested interest in the result. But be warned: even after you've done the
research, you still won't know for sure if GM foods, mobile phones or
household chemicals are safe. So the first step is to accept the fact that,
despite our scientific prowess, 100% certainty has gone the way of the new
economy and the free lunch. There's no such thing as total proof, no such
thing as zero risk. Better learn to live with it.