Saturday, August 18, 2012

THE CAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE


As I recently slurped a Yoplait yogurt, I wondered whether its milk came from cows given bovine growth hormone. I emailed the customer service department, and got my answer the same day: “There’s no evidence to show rBST is harmful to humans.”

I took that to be a yes. I don’t know if rBST is a curse or a blessing, for that matter, but I don’t see any need to ingest even a homeopathic dose of it. Exercising my sacred American consumer Right of Choice, I scratched Yoplait off my shopping list.

Bovine growth hormone has cleared the bar of the Food and Drug Administration. It’s a low bar: the FDA admits into the marketplace thousands of untested chemicals it lumps together as GRAS, or “Generally Recognized As Safe.” GRAS isn’t cautionary; it’s more like, as kids say, whatever. In the cautionary view, questionable chemicals aren’t citizens (at least not until the Supreme Court meets) so they don’t have the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty beyond a doubt.

In Canada, the Cautionary Principle happens to be the law. We visited a relative in an Ottawa suburb, and learned it’s hard to buy Roundup there. If you’re absolutely determined, you can get it, but only if you post a sign in front of your home saying you’re using it. To your greener neighbors, your sign may as well say, “I Whip My Children.”

Read the ingredients on the back of your shampoo bottle. How many of them would remain there if the U.S. were to adopt the Cautionary Principle? (By the way, have you ever wondered how those who make shampoo choose its 141 ingredients?) Of course, we’re talking more than shampoo. It’s time we did something to end the relentless contamination of our food, household agents, building materials, personal products, and even medications.

Much of this pollution resides in stuff I don’t need anyway. Browsing in Safeway, I peeked at a sandwich’s ingredients list. Why does a turkey sandwich need three different artificial coloring agents? Somehow my life will limp along without Yoplait and Safeway sandwiches.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for Congress to fix this. The folks who make this stuff will wail that the Cautionary Principle will wreck their business. Hundreds of thousands will lose jobs. The national economy, now only derailed, will tumble over the precipice. The beginning of the end of civilization as we know it. In other words, the usual. And Congress won’t pass any law that threatens the end of civilization as we know it.

But here’s the good news: we don’t need Congress. All we have to do is enact the C.P. ourselves. All the time. Every act, including every purchase, is a vote. To paraphrase Arlo Guthrie, if only one person stopped buying Yoplait, he or she would be called an eccentric. If two stopped, we’d called it an emerging cult. Three, though, is a conspiracy, and when four do it, corporations begin taking notice.

Johnson & Johnson, for example, plans to remove potentially dangerous chemicals from nearly all its adult toiletries and cosmetic products worldwide by 2015. Its announcement didn’t call them hazardous, only "chemicals of concern." Fine. That’s the Cautionary Principle at work. We don’t have to revive Congress or rely on Friends of the Earth and Physicians for Social Responsibility. All we have to do is to buy exactly what we want and not to buy what we don’t want.

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