Europe: Pay attention to early warning signs on technology health risks

Emily Beament

MORE attention should be paid to early warnings that technology ranging from mobile phones to pesticides could be harmful to health and the environment, it was urged today.

Danger signals of the potential risks of different technologies often go unheeded or suppressed until they are causing death, illness or environmental destruction, according a new report from the European Environment Agency.

The Late Lessons from Early Warnings report highlights past cases such as the damage done by leaded petrol and the manipulation of research by tobacco companies into whether passive smoking caused lung cancer.

And it calls for taking greater precaution in the case of new and untested technology, warning that scientific uncertainty is not a justification for no action if there is plausible evidence of potentially serious harm.

One such case is mobile phones, where the World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has categorised radiation fields from mobile phones as "possibly carcinogenic", or cancer causing.

The EEA's report said studies had shown an increased risk of some brain tumours associated with long term mobile phone use, but that governments and the industry had been slow to act.

It urged precautions such as using hands-free devices and texting to mitigate any risks that may exist.

The agency's executive director Jacqueline McGlade also raised concerns that the constant connections being made by the latest mobile phones could be disrupting sleep patterns of youngsters if they sleep to close to them, with impacts on their development.

She said children and teenagers should not sleep close to their phones and that wifi base units should not be in bedrooms or should be switched off at night.

While mobile phones had many benefits, she said: "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 policy makers from taking preventative action to protect human health."

Another case is "nanotechnology", technologies that are engineered on a molecular level, where the report warns there are currently limitations in managing, legislating for and assessing the risks of these products.

The EEA report also highlights the impact of a type of insecticide known as a neonicotinoid on honeybees.

In France, a leading pesticide containing the neonicotinoid imidacloprid has been banned for use on sunflower and maize seeds after evidence pointed to the damage it was doing to honeybee colonies.

The report said scientists came under pressure over their findings in a debate which had "high economic and political stakes".

The debate continues, with ongoing use of neonicotinoids in countries including the UK where officials say there is currently not enough evidence to ban it.

The EEA report urges policy makers to respond to early warnings more quickly, and that those causing any future harm should pay for the damage. It also suggests that taking early precautions can stimulate rather than stifle innovation.

Prof McGlade said: "In the absence of more solid scientific 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."