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Health, safety and unintended consequences

As average life expectancy continues to increase and everyday life for most people in the developed world is safer than it has ever been, the pressure to eliminate remaining hazards has not abated. Now that infectious diseases are no longer the mass killers they were, our expectations of a safe and healthy life have grown.

For example, we have seen stepwise tightening of the EU regulatory system for plant protection products (or pesticides as most people will continue to call them). While undoubtedly done with the best of intentions, there has never been any evidence that the group exposed to by far the greatest quantities of pesticides, farmworkers, suffer any ill health if sensible handling precautions were taken.

Despite this, large numbers of people are concerned about the presence of even tiny traces of pesticides in food and regard ‘natural’ organic produce as healthier. That the lay public is influenced in this way is one thing, but more worrying is the way this has translated into legislation. Pesticides are now approved on the basis of the theoretical hazard they present, taking no account of the established system of identifying risk and minimising it via a series of simple precautions.

This sets a dangerous precedent for regulations to be made on the basis of the precautionary principle rather than scientific advice. But, although this may seem to be a victory for the green lobby, it simply represents a successful attack on one of their bêtes noires, without improving safety for anyone. Farmers will be increasingly restricted in the range of products they can use to produce good quality crops, and some may use cheaper, fake products. Prices of fruit and vegetables will be pushed up as it becomes more expensive to produce good quality harvests.

In practice, far more harm to health is caused by poor diet than could conceivably occur through exposure to the supposedly hazardous traces of pesticides. While only a small part of the overall picture, anything that tends to make healthy eating more expensive will make a bad situation worse. Food has got both cheaper and available in greater variety over our lifetimes. A well-intentioned but misguided attempt to make it safer could partially reverse that.

While what we eat, and the quantities we consume, can make a big difference to our health – witness the trends in obesity and type 2 diabetes – this is largely under our own control. However, we are also victims (or beneficiaries) of our genetic makeup. Our build, our metabolism, our susceptibility to some medical conditions are all outside our control, and our diet is just a contributory factor that influences the outcome ordained for us.

Between the two extremes of inherited genetic traits and personal choice over diet and a number of other lifestyle issues come environmental factors; not directly controllable by individuals, but which may be improved by societal actions. A particularly high priority one at the moment is air pollution, still shortening large numbers of lives (Air pollution ‘causes 467,000 premature deaths a year in Europe’).

The figures come from the European Environment Agency and relate primarily to urban areas, where pollutants are concentrated (Air quality in Europe – 2016 report). Of the nearly half a million lives which air pollution is blamed for shortening, the great majority – 430,000 – were caused by fine particles (PM2.5). Nitrogen dioxide, NO2, is held responsible for 71,000 premature deaths, and ozone for a further 17,000.

Eurostat figures show that there are approximately five million total deaths in the EU annually (Mortality and life expectancy statistics), so air pollution is implicated in nearly 10% of these. When the deaths are broken down, circulatory disease and cancer are the biggest causes, with respiratory diseases (mainly chronic lower respiratory diseases and pneumonia) coming in third place. Eurostat also reports life expectancy having increased from 77.7 in 2002 to 80.9 years in 2014, something to bear in mind when we hear of the various factors influencing mortality.

Perhaps contrary to expectations, lung diseases are not the main effect of air pollution. To quote from the EEA report, “Heart disease and stroke are the most common reasons for premature death attributable to air pollution and are responsible for 80 % of cases of premature death; lung diseases and lung cancer follow”. The source for this is the WHO.

Not that Europe is bad by world standards. The WHO’s figures also show that a vast swathe of the developing world – particularly China, India and many African countries – have much higher levels of particulate matter in the air. This is a well-known problem in cities such as Beijing and Delhi, but is greatly exacerbated by the use of ‘traditional biomass’ (wood and dung) as fuel in rural areas.

Nevertheless, air pollution is quite justifiably a real concern across Europe. This has led to calls for diesel cars to be banned from cities (although, as last week’s piece argued, the latest generation of engines are no more polluting than new petrol-engined cars). Others have gone further and would like to see only electric cars in towns and cities.

While this would make some sense, decision makers have to consider the wider consequences of any decision. At the current stage of development, only plug-in hybrid cars would have sufficient range to be powered by batteries for most urban journeys while still being suitable for longer distance motoring. Many users of pure electric cars would have to own or hire a conventional car for longer trips, or accept severe restrictions on range and/or overall journey time.

If the rapid change to pure electric cars foreseen by some does come to pass, then it would still improve urban air quality but would require massive investment in electricity generation. If optimists pushed ahead with more wind farms, these would need full back up from conventional power stations if commuters were not to find their electric cars unusable some mornings. The result would be little net reduction in carbon dioxide emissions – the ostensible reason for expansion of renewable energy generation – but higher bills for everyone. Health and safety are very important, but legislators should always consider the consequences of new policies.