Jeff Stier: When environmentalists oppose science

In the era of self-driving cars, big data and increasingly sophisticated bio-medical advances, the age-old question of how regulation can keep up with technology is more relevant than ever.

Scientific advances touch every aspect our lives, often in ways we rarely think about. Today, we live longer, healthier, more productive and more enjoyable lives because of our access to products that were unimaginable for most of human history. So it’s important to get the right balance when regulating our modern world, to both keep us and our planet safe, while fostering innovation that benefit society.

The debate over regulation often devolves into a debate about “too little” versus “too much” regulation, split along the ideological divide. Too little regulation, goes the argument, and we are exposed to too much risk. Too much, and we don’t advance.

This binary approach, however, represents the dark-ages of regulatory policy. It was more frequently relevant when our tools to measure risk were primitive, but today’s technology allows much more precise ways to evaluate real-world risks. With less uncertainty, there’s less of a need to cast a broad regulatory net.

Regulation not warranted by countervailing risk just doesn’t make sense. That’s why a pseudoscientific approach, dubbed the “precautionary principle,” behind much of today’s regulation is so pernicious. This dogma dictates that it’s always better to be safe than to ever be sorry. The approach is politically effective not only because it’s something your mother says, but because it’s easier to envision potential dangers, remote as they may be, than potential benefits. Uncertainty, it turns out, is a powerful tool for those who seek to live in a world without risk.

But what happens when regulators can get a reasonably good handle on benefits and risks? Some potential risks have been eliminated simply because the basis for the concern has proven to be unwarranted. For more than two decades, the artificial sweetener, saccharin, came with a cancer warning label in the U.S.But it turned out that the animal experiment which led to the warning was later found to be irrelevant to humans, and the warning was eventually removed.

Warning about a product when risks are not well-understood is prudent. But it would be absurd to continue to warn after the science tells us there’s nothing to worry about.

Today, an analogous situation is playing out in the EU, where activists are using outmoded tests not just to place warning labels on silicones, a building block of our technological world, but to ban them outright.

The playbook is predictable: as the scientific basis for a product’s safety grows, opponents go to increasingly great lengths to manufacture uncertainty, move the goalposts and capitalize on scientific illiteracy to gain the political upper-hand.

We’ve seen these tactics employed in opposition to everything from growing human tissue in a lab, to harm-reducing alternatives to smoking, such as e-cigarettes. Now, the effort to manufacture uncertainty is playing out in the debate over the environmental impact of silicones, which are used to in a wide range of consumer, medical, and industrial products.

Fortunately, in the case of silicones, regulators in a number of countries, including Australia, have put politics aside and adhere to appropriate scientific methods to inform their decision-making.

The Health Department’s National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme published an environmental assessment for certain chemicals used to make silicones, in particular, a class of chemicals called siloxanes. Silicones have unique properties which make them useful in a wide range of applications, including aviation, energy efficient LED lighting, medical products and personal care products. But their widespread use and unique properties have raised questions about their effect on the environment, such as whether they bioaccumulate and pose a risk to aquatic life. The report employs a risk-based approach, the very type that European-based precautionary principle advocates oppose.

Here’s where we get back the issue of uncertainty. Advocates for restricting the use of certain siloxanes rely primarily on studies done in laboratories, which don’t replicate how the chemicals respond to real-world conditions, where for instance, they quickly evaporate. (This property is what makes them particularly useful in sunscreens which spread easily and evaporate quickly.)

Laboratory studies are a valuable part of evaluating chemicals because they can identify the potential that a particular substance poses a hazard. But hazard assessments are of limited value without considering real world circumstances. To do that, scientists do risk assessments, which takes into account factors such as the level of exposure to the hazard in conditions being evaluated.

We like to look at it this way: falling out of a boat and drowning to death is a hazard. However the risk of drowning in a desert is so low, because there’s no exposure, that it a risk not worthy of concern.

This rational approach to hazard and risk was successfully adopted in Canada. Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), using real world exposure information, decided to minimize exposure to a level that didn’t degrade the environment, requiring monitoring from certain industrial sources. In other words, the ECCC didn’t just consider the hazard, they also considered the risk. As a result, Canada did not ban consumer use, but, instead, took steps to reduce environmental exposure from only a narrow group of industrial sources that were potential problems.

With regard to one siloxane, D4, ECCC regulators found that the chemical “is entering or may be entering the environment in a quantity or concentration or under conditions that have or may have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity.” But instead of banning its use, consistent with their risk management approach, they required a significant reduction of “D4 releases to the aquatic environment” and encouraged the use of alternatives to reduce or minimize risks.

On D5, Canada’s regulators did something even more practical. Recognizing industry objections to the E.U.-style modeling approach, which ECCC initially used for D5, the Board of Review took real-world exposures of D5 into account. Then they did what all good scientists should be prepared to do: they reversed course after finding that new, more accurate data conflicted with their initial findings. In light of the improved information, the ECCC regulators wrote that “it is virtually impossible for Siloxane D5 to occur in any environmental matrix at concentrations sufficient to produce harm to the environment.”

Similarly, the U.S. Environmental Protection has been working in concert with manufacturers to measure the degree to which key chemicals used in the manufacture of silicones are released into the environment, as well as what happens to the chemicals in real world circumstances, rather than through modeling or laboratory studies which don’t necessarily reflect what happens in nature.

Australia’s report is consistent with these approaches, noting that “[t]he direct risks to aquatic life from exposure to these chemicals at expected surface water concentrations are not likely to be significant.”

This is the very type of scientific analysis that European activists disdain. Because for them, environmental protection is not measured by outcomes, but by the severity of restrictions, regardless of the quality of science used to justify them.

We support tough environmental regulation when the best science supports it. But sadly, many of today’s environmentalists see science only as a tool to advance an anti-progress political agenda. When the science contradicts the agenda, the science is the first to fall by the wayside.

In legal circles, they say “If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. If you have the law on your side, pound the law. If you have neither on your side, pound the table.” The opposition to risk-assessments is the scientific equivalent to pounding the table.

The value of the Canadian and Australian approach is that consumers will continue to benefit from improved product performance provided by silicones. The environment will benefit as well, given silicones widespread use in green energy products, from solar panels to wind turbines and even in energy efficient lighting.

Australia’s risk-based approach should be a model for other governments assessing not only silicones, but all innovative products because it ensures the protection of the environment, while at the same time, when the science justifies it, also protecting consumers’ access to incredibly useful products.

Jeff Stier is a Senior Fellow at the Consumer Choice Center.

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18 Responses to Jeff Stier: When environmentalists oppose science

  1. Dr Fred Lenin

    Since when have enviriofreaks taken any notice of science ,unless it fake science by their comrades ,true science is the truth and the truth is a stranger to socialist gangrenes . Lies are the truth !Black IS White ! ,we are all racist ,homophobic misogynist deniers of the Lie ,Lies Rule .

  2. DaveR

    A case in point is the European activists’ attempt to ban Glyphosate by EU regulation in 2017, using falsified research from a WHO study. Its definitely not about the science: more about Monsanto and politics.

    A second case is the DDT ban in 1972 by the US EPA. Its is now known that most of the science used to inform the ban was ” faulty or fraudulent” research. But it was the beginning of the modern environmental movement, and the victory was important for recruitment and mobilisation. At what cost to the human race, especially in the third world?

  3. Ubique

    Australia should also adopt a risk-based approach to immigration. Who are most likely to integrate, work, pay a fair share of tax, be law abiding, and contribute to rather than being a burden on the community? Prioritise accordingly.

  4. Farmer Gez

    The Greens use regulation as the best method of destroying the products developed from science, but they need allies to achieve their goals.
    Remember how Gillard gave the Greens virtual control of the APVMA chemical registration process. The smarmy bastards then proceeded to use process as a stop brake on farm chemicals
    They hoped that the costs involved would not only stymie new chemicals but cost older chemicals off the market.
    Farmers knew what they were up to and got the Nats to force the Libs to change the regulations as soon as they gained government.
    Ludlum and the Luddites.

  5. Tim Neilson

    Australia should also adopt a risk-based approach to immigration. Who are most likely to integrate, work, pay a fair share of tax, be law abiding, and contribute to rather than being a burden on the community? Prioritise accordingly.

    You mean exclude them because they won’t vote Labor/Greens?

  6. Entropy

    Yes Gez, if Barnaby achieved one thing as Ag minister it was sorting out that polluted nest of self aggrandisers and producer haters. I am tempted he took the punishment too far by shifting the APVMA to Armidale, but maybe it was necessary to extract the filth.

  7. JohnL

    I am watching National Press Club:
    British author and environmental activist, Mark Lynas, presents a special address to the National and Rural Press Club on the topic: Seeds of Science – Why We Got It So Wrong On GMOs.
    Please watch!!!
    Alert everybody to watch it!!!!!

  8. Rohan

    Remember how Gillard gave the Greens virtual control of the APVMA chemical registration process. The smarmy bastards then proceeded to use process as a stop brake on farm chemicals
    They hoped that the costs involved would not only stymie new chemicals but cost older chemicals off the market.
    Farmers knew what they were up to and got the Nats to force the Libs to change the regulations as soon as they gained government.

    I have to deal with these clowns and their registration processes. And then Barnababy moved them from Canberra to Armidale. Watching those useless, overpaid, vindictive and authoritative green zealots bureaucrats leave in droves was gold!

    Can we also move the head ATO office to Bogabilla?

  9. MichelLasouris

    Is anyone concerned about our ever increasing ability to pull large sections of today’s people above the poverty line, and then offer them a modicum of comfort? Yet advances in technology offer everyone ever increasing life expectancy and a more affluent life style.
    When African Nations , who cannot feed themselves, offer the most basic hygene levels and clean water are now producing 6.3 thriving infants per child bearing female, what is the inevitable outcome? Perhaps the Africans well accepted propensity for butchering it’s own people will be our saviour from obscene over population. Or maybe, say, the Afghans and Pakistanis will succeed in re generating an epidemic of Polio victims? I can’t see how a huge growth in low intellect Africans can benefit the world as whole, can you?

  10. OneWorldGovernment

    Nah.

    Just burn the so called universities to the ground.

  11. egg_

    scientists do risk assessments

    Risk assessments are part of any real work today, legally.

  12. egg_

    I am tempted he took the punishment too far by shifting the APVMA to Armidale, but maybe it was necessary to extract the filth.

    The poseurs who held a meeting in Armidale MacDonald’s (their second home?)?

  13. OneWorldGovernment

    I want book burnings of every single Australian piece of crap Commonwealth, State and Local Government Acts.

  14. NB

    Be progressive, be anti-progress.

  15. Nerblnob

    Green nuts have infiltrated NOPSEMA process resulting in every new drilling application being blocked by default

  16. Mark M

    It’s About Laws, Not Light Bulbs

    Mr. Gore’s ambition is not just to change individual behavior by getting people to buy energy-saving light bulbs: it is to change policy.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/06/opinion/06sun2.html

    And so goes the Twistcow …

  17. Mark M

    Trump tells the Germans they are captive to the Russians for their energy whilst the Germans turn theirs into useless renewables.
    Thank you, President Trump.

  18. rtp

    We live healthier lives do we?

    This author is clearly blind. He may be right about the rest of his article but it is hard to take him seriously after that.

    The current generation of children is the sickest generation – outside of famine – in all of human history.

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