There is something that depleted uranium weapons, genetically manipulated plants and beef from countries exposed to mad cow disease have in common, and it is the reason for so much distress. They are all possible health dangers about which the public feels improperly informed, perhaps deliberately misled.
This is a cumulative problem. It doesn't matter so much that these are specific questions with separate and unrelated causes, as that official explanations are no longer quite credible.
There have been too many cases of failure to be candid, whether from ignorance or in order to cover up embarrassment, as in the French incidents of HIV-contaminated blood being used for transfusions because locally produced tests were not ready and the authorities did not want to admit the need to import foreign ones.
The whole history of atomic weapons is dotted with cases of misinformation. Secrecy justified by security reasons has been used to hide risks to unwitting civilians, whether they were made to be guinea pigs or simply exposed to pollution.
There is no way that the ordinary person can verify any of the assertions about precautions that have been taken or the harmlessness of new scientific measures. In food production, industrial techniques are used more and more with questionable results - cows and chickens and pigs raised in tiny spaces and fed with dubious manufactured meal and drugs (antibiotics and hormones) to alter normal growth and fattening. It makes food cheaper but less reliable.
The reports on these various questions seem to trickle out, suddenly raising doubts about what had been assumed to be safe practices, and they are often contradictory. There is evidently a risk of conflict between significant economic interests and the basic interest of public health, and not adequate evidence that health is always put first.
In the case of depleted uranium, civilians have not been involved ex- cept in battle areas where the arms have been exploded, but large num bers of troops from many countries have been exposed.
There is convincing proof that the uranium metal in unexploded weapons presents no danger; the radiation level is low and the rays do not penetrate skin. But when it is pulverized into dust, it can be inhaled and accumulate to dangerous levels inside the body.
NATO has cited independent scientists assuring that there is no connection between these weapons and the cases of leukemia reported particularly among Italian soldiers, but what of other cancers? NATO itself is obviously an interested party, and the general record of officialdom in all these cases is such that the public is naturally skeptical.
There are so many complex new materials, inventions, techniques that the public uses in one way or another but cannot possibly know enough about to make rational judgments on the risk involved. José Bové, the French farm militant, rails against "la malbouffe" (bad chow), but the point is not whether we eat less well at less cost but whether we know what we are eating and its effects.
One way or another, individual governments have lost automatic public confidence in their pronouncements on a whole variety of issues that only recognized scientific experts can settle. Politicians don't know any more about the details than other citizens.
But there are no international organizations to which the questions can be referred. The World Health Organization does an impressive job fighting infectious and endemic diseases, a recognition of the principle that germs know no boundaries and neither should health. But it is not adapted to giving advice on new products, new drugs, new devices, advice which people need so as not to feel dependent on sources with interest involved.
This is another aspect of the globalization development, a new requirement because of the new patterns of trade, communications and even defense. The feeling that you can't trust what you are told, and can't find out for yourself, is an important element of the unease and discontent afflicting affluent societies and provoking protests that which have no constructive proposals.
There has to be a good deal more effort to supply the kind of information that people can rely on as they go about their lives if they are not to believe only in fantasies. With so many bewildering claims and counterclaims demanding attention, credibility is more important than ever. It is a basis for peace and stability.
Copyright © 2001 the International Herald Tribune