IN the first century, Pliny the Elder advised against purchasing slaves from the asbestos mines because their life expectancies were short, although he also believed this wondrous material offered protection against all spells, especially those of the Magi.
From the 1920s, a growing scientific body of evidence linked asbestos to fatal lung disease, but that didn’t stop private companies and governments from continuing to tout its benefits and promote its use well into the 1970s.
When commercial interests are at play, it’s easy for the risk–benefit debate to become a battle, in which confusion reigns and evidence is either misrepresented or hidden from view.
In recent times, we’ve seen something like that happen in relation to climate change — as vested interests seek to cast doubt on the scientific consensus — but it’s hardly a new phenomenon.
Denial of the harm caused to children’s health in lead industry towns delayed remedial action for years, as Professor Mark Taylor of Macquarie University makes clear.
Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing. When you’re in the midst of smoke and mirrors, the picture isn’t always so clear.
US authors write in this week’s MJA about the controversial practice of unconventional gas development (UGD), more commonly known as fracking.
The campaign against fracking in this country has brought together an unlikely coalition of left and right, encompassing farmers, environmentalists and at least one right-wing shock jock, concerned that the industry may contaminate ground and surface water, posing substantial environmental and health risks.
Supporters, on the other hand, argue fracking can provide great quantities of cheap energy at little or no risk to the environment.
So, what to believe?
The MJA authors argue that Australia needs to learn from the American experience where the industry has a much longer history, although they acknowledge the quality of the evidence from the US isn’t what it should be.
Toxic materials have certainly been found in wastewaters in the US, including salts, chlorides, volatile organics, heavy metals and endocrine-disrupting chemicals, they write.
Self-reported health data also suggest higher rates of respiratory, gastrointestinal and neurological symptoms among residents of fracking areas.
Studies that might establish a causal link have, however, not been done.
“Unfortunately, in the US, few health impact assessment studies have been conducted before or even during UGD activities, and there have been even fewer well designed epidemiologic studies”, they write.
Given the pressure to expand the industry in this country, and impose it on often reluctant rural communities, such a lack of evidence really isn’t good enough.
If the health disasters of the past have taught us anything, it should be that high-quality, independent research needs to be conducted before large populations are put at risk.
As the MJA authors write, establishing a true picture requires collection of baseline mortality and morbidity data with tracking of any changes over time. Without that kind of data, the decisions made by regulators are on shaky ground and reassurances given to affected communities are really just empty words.
“Policies should be informed by empirical evidence based on actual experience rather than assurance of best practices”, the American authors write.
It’s hard to argue with that. Pliny the Elder might have thought the magical properties of asbestos outweighed the suffering of slaves, but surely we can do better than that.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.