The future will judge us on how fast we woke up to the risks we created
Wednesday 25th May 2016
Examples of the ways workers and the public were once blithely exposed to the most noxious substances, whether through innocence or expedience, resonate particularly strongly with us.
We shudder to think of the young women at the Radium Dial Company in Canada in the 1920s encouraged by supervisors to lick their brushes to a point to achieve a finer line applying radioactive paint to wristwatch faces. Hundreds died of radiation poisoning, many after suffering disfiguring necrosis of the jaw.
We have a similar reaction to Lorillard Tobacco's use of Amosite (brown asbestos) in the filters in its Kent Micronite cigarettes in the 1950s. Or, staying with asbestos, there were the hundreds of actors -- including Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn and Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz -- showered with Chrysotile flakes to simulate snow in Hollywood studios.
The truth is that human nature doesn't change and, for all the technological advances of recent decades, we continue to be blindsided by the unintended consequences of our innovations (both asbestos and radioluminescent paint were lauded as wonder materials in their day).
We are often caught short by the harm caused by our answers to other problems. So just as the Kent Micronite was launched in response to the first lung cancer scares about filterless cigarettes, the diesel cars whose popularity soared among those keen to buy vehicles that emitted less CO2, turn out to emit high levels of elemental carbon (soot) and nitrogen dioxide in the urban cycle that are now predicted to lead to thousands of premature deaths. (It's true even of those models whose manufacturers didn't falsify their pollution data.)
Recent research suggests that the extra weight (24% on average) carried by seemingly benign electric and hybrid vehicles generates enough airborne particulates from extra brake and tyre wear as to offset many of their other virtues.
The advantage we have over previous eras is that we prize individual lives more highly and we monitor our environment more closely. The knowledge that carbon nanotubes -- one of today's miracle materials -- can scar the lungs and pleura like asbestos fibres accompanies the start of their widespread use rather than lagging decades behind. Whether they are maintained safely in non-respirable forms is up to us and our regulators.
The future is another country too and perhaps its citizens will judge us not by how many unintended risks we created but by how soon we realised and how well we controlled them.