Proposition 65

WarningPoster1I had break from posting following my recent family vacation to California. While I was out there I noticed this rather alarming notice at a beach hotel and restaurant in Santa Monica. After a bit of research it turned out that the notice was motivated by California Proposition 65 (1986). Everywhere we went in California we saw similar notices.

I stand in this issue not solely as somebody professionally involved in risk but also as an individual concerned for his own health and that of his family. If there is an audience for warnings of harm then it is me.

I am aware of having embarked on a huge topic here but, as I say, it is as a concerned consumer of risk advice. The notice, and I hesitate to call it a warning, was unambiguous. Apparently, this hotel, teeming with diners and residents enjoying the pacific coast, did contain chemicals emphatically “known” to cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm. Yet for such dreadful risks to be present the notice gave alarmingly vague information. I saw that a brochure was available within the hotel but my wife was unwilling to indulge my professional interest. I suspect that most visitors showed even less curiosity.

As far as discharging any legal duty goes, vague notices offer no protection to anybody. In the English case of Vacwell Engineering Co. Ltd v B.D.H. Chemicals Ltd [1969] 3 All ER 1681, Vacwell purchased ampules of boron tribromide from B.D.H.. The ampules bore the label “Harmful Vapour”. While the ampules were being washed, one was dropped into a sink where it fractured allowing the contents to come into contact with water. Mixing water with boron tribromide caused an explosion that killed one employee and extensively damaged a laboratory building. The label had given B.D.H. no information as to the character or possible severity of the hazard, nor any specific details that would assist in avoiding the consequences.

Likewise the Proposition 65 notice gives me no information on the severity of the hazard. There is a big difference between “causing” cancer and posing a risk of cancer. The notice doesn’t tell me whether cancer is an inevitable consequence of exposure or whether I should just shorten my odds against mortality. There is no quantification of risk on which I can base my own decisions.

Nor does the notice give me any guidance on what to do to avoid or mitigate the risk. Will stepping foot inside the premises imperil my health? Or are there only certain areas that are hazardous? Are these delineated with further and more specific warnings? Or even ultimately segregated in secure areas? Am I even safe immediately outside the premises? Ten yards away? A mile? I have to step inside to acquire the brochure so I think I should be told.

The notice ultimately fulfils no socially useful purpose whatever. I looked at the State of California’s own website on the matter but found it too opaque to extract any useful information within the time I was willing to spend on it, which I suspect is more time than most of the visitors who find their way there.

It is most difficult for members of the public, even those engaged and interested, to satisfy themselves as to the science on these matters. The risks fall within what John Adams at University College London characterises as risks that are known to science but on which normal day to day intuition is of little use. The difficulty we all have is that our reflection on the risks is conditioned on the anecdotal hearsay that we pick up along the way. I have looked before at the question of whether anecdote is data.

In 1962, Rachel Carson published the book Silent Spring. The book aggregated anecdotes and suggestive studies leading Carson to infer that industrial pesticides were harming agriculture, wildlife and human health. Again, proper evaluation of the case she advanced demands more attention to scientific detail than any lay person is willing to spare. However, the fear she articulated lingers and conditions our evaluation of other claims. It seems so plausible that synthetic chemicals developed for lethal effect, rather than evolved in symbiosis with the natural world, would pose a threat to human life and be an explanation for increasing societal morbidity.

However, where data is sparse and uncertain, it is important to look for other sources of information that we can “borrow” to add “strength” to our preliminary assessment (Persi Diaconis’ classic paper Theories of Data Analysis: From Magical Thinking through Classical Statistics has some lucid insights on this). I found the Cancer Research UK website provided me with some helpful borrowing strength. Cancer is becoming more prevalent largely because we are living longer. Cancer Research helpfully referred me to this academic research published in the British Journal of Cancer.

Despite the difficulty in disentangling and interpreting data on specific risks of alleged pathogens we have the strength of borrowing from life expectancy data. Life expectancy has manifestly improved in the half century since Carson’s book, belying her fear of a toxic catastrophe flowing from our industrialised society. I think that is why there was so much indifference to the Santa Monica notice.

I should add that, inside the hotel, I spotted five significant trip hazards. I suspect these posed a much more substantial threat to visitors’ wellbeing than the virtual risks of contamination with hotel carcinogens.

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