By Martin Banks - 24th January 2013
We should always be asking ourselves the question: 'Innovation, what for?
Sybille van den Hove
A Brussels conference has been told that warning signs of the potentially harmful effects of new technologies are sometimes "ignored or suppressed".
That is the message of a new report by the European environment agency (EEA) which details cases where "danger signals" have gone unheeded.
In some cases it says this has led to death, illness and "environmental destruction".
Speaking at the debate on Wednesday, EEA executive director Jacqueline McGlade said, "The environment in which we live is complex and changing rapidly.
"We can no longer look at single causes of harm; instead we need to consider many different things in combination - pharmaceuticals, pollutants in the environment, food products and electromagnetic radiation from phones.
"The combined influence of many different contaminants may be behind a rise in cancers, fertility problems and other illnesses, so we need new ways to identify hazards to human and ecosystem health associated with new products and a more precautionary approach to decision making."
The report, "Late lessons from early warnings," was launched in parliament on Wednesday and later discussed at a "café crossfire" debate jointly organised by the EEA and Friends of Europe think tank.
Its publication follows the first volume of "Late lessons", published in 2001, which detailed the history of technologies subsequently found to be harmful.
Case studies in the new 750-page report include the stories behind industrial mercury poisoning, fertility problems caused by pesticides and hormone disrupting chemicals in common plastics.
It also considers the warning signs emerging from technologies currently in use, including mobile phones and nanotechnology.
The debate heard from several experts who agreed that policymakers should strive to "learn from past mistakes" in order to improve public health and environmental decision making.
One keynote speaker, Sybille van den Hove, director of Median and visiting professor at the autonomous university of Barcelona, said, "The reports invites us to reflect on innovation and on the reasons for innovation.
"Innovation is a means, not an end in itself, it is only desirable to the extent that it improves human health, wellbeing and ecosystem resilience."
Van den Hove, who also chairs the EEA's scientific committee, added, "One of the key messages from the report is that there is no necessary antagonism between precaution and innovation.
"To reconcile precaution and innovation on the path to sustainability we need to learn from the past and stay open to the surprises of the future, broaden up our perspectives and unleash human creativity towards not just technological innovation but also cultural, social, political, institutional, organisational and behavioural innovation.
"We should always be asking ourselves the question: 'Innovation, what for?'"
Further comment came from proffessor Philippe Grandjean, chair of environmental medicine at the university of southern Denmark, who said, "Research on environmental hazards should consider poorly known problems.
"Environmental health research needs to address the question: are we sufficiently confident that this exposure to a potential hazard leads to adverse effects serious enough to decide on appropriate intervention?"
He added, "Misinterpretation may occur when results published in scientific journals are expressed in hedged language."
The debate heard that historical case studies show that warnings in the past were "ignored or sidelined" until damage to health and the environment was "inevitable".
In some instances, companies "put short term profits ahead of public safety", according to the report.
It recommends wider use of the 'precautionary principle' to reduce hazards in cases of new and largely untested technologies and chemicals.
Such a precautionary approach is "nearly always" beneficial, it argues.
Addressing the issue of new technologies in general, McGlade said, "In the absence of more solid sientific evidence on potential harmful effects caused by new technologies it would be prudent to take a precautionary approach, so as to avoid damage to human and ecosystem health.
"We cannot ignore the past lessons which tell us that the costs of inaction are often higher and more tragic than those of early action".
"As a general approach to hazards to ecosystems and human health, the EEA supports the precautionary principle.
"This should be used to limit the exposure of citizens to harmful substances and technologies, pending strong evidence that they are safe to use."
She added, "No evidence of harm is often misunderstood as evidence of no harm, which is a very different thing."
On mobile phones, McGlade said, "We do encourage technological development and recognise that mobile phones have numerous social, economic and even environmental benefits. Scientific evidence on the link between mobile phone use and head cancers is still debated but has been growing over the past few years.
"Although our understanding of the actual mechanisms involved is incomplete, this should not prevent policymakers from taking preventative action to protect human health"