Caution is needed in establishing precedents while attempting to enhance safety

JULY 29th 2009
Once again the media manages (whether deliberately or not I cannot say) to confuse the public. When a steel works in Corby, Northamptonshire, England was closed down in 1980 and dismantled over the years 1985-1999, the toxic waste was removed to a site north of the town. It turns out the local council were either not aware or careless of how to handle this toxic waste. Later, birth defects were found in significant numbers in the area, significantly related to mothers who were pregnant during the time of the removals. Some of the toxic materials know to be present are also known now to cause some of the problems observed and today a High Court Judge found in favour of 16 out of 18 claimants. The council was found to have been negligent over work to reclaim a steel plant. It seems they certainly were and have admitted they made mistakes. It is likely they are 'to blame'.

The confusion arises when the newspapers describe this as a child-poisoning case and compare it with Thalidomide and the MMR Vaccine scare. These two cases have nothing to do with the Corby incident. Both Thalidomide and the MMR Vaccine were medicaments designed to safeguard the health of adults and children. They were tested carefully.

Thalidomide was a tranquilizer and painkiller proclaimed as a "wonder drug" for insomnia, coughs, colds and headaches. It was also found to be an effective anti emetic which had an inhibitory effect on morning sickness, so thousands of pregnant women took the drug to relieve their symptoms. At the time of the drug's development it was not thought likely that any drug could pass from the mother across the placental barrier and harm the developing foetus. Nor were any dangerous effects suspected if it did. However it was much later discovered that the Thalidomide molecule was produced in two mirror versions, only one of which was dangerous to a developing foetus at the precise stage of development when 'morning sickness' was, tragically, most likely to occur as a symptom in the mother. Thalidomide of the 'safe' isomer could be still used today, even by pregnant women if it were not for the fact that some of the safe isomer could convert in the body to the other. Thalidomide and analogues are approved today for the treatment of many serious conditions. So the reason the manufacturers of Thalidomide paid serious amounts in compensation to the children and families affected was because they were RESPONSIBLE, but not because they were NEGLIGENT. They were also to some extent BLAMABLE because they took the risk with pregnant mothers. But that blame is mitigated in that they had no reason to believe there was a risk at the time and tests on live foetuses are not allowed. Corby Council knew they were moving dangerous toxic materials. There is however a LIABILITY of any manufacturer of artificially produced drugs that have not been a naturally consumed item in the past. We are only truly liable for behaviour we know to be wrong. For that reason we are obliged to educate ourselves to a level appropriate to the freedoms and privileges we claim. A drug company must comply with the law as it now exists and that defines the limits of LEGAL LIABILITY as far as the supply of drugs is concerned.

The MMR Vaccine is also unrelated to the Corby incident. The manufacturers complied with the law and took every effort to make sure that the relationship to autism perceived by the.parents as obvious and also statistically valid in their personal experience was not statistically valid when the statistical base was expanded. This meant the vaccine could not be shown as the cause. Every precaution has been taken. Nevertheless, because it is impossible to prove a negative the government can not insist on mandatory vaccination, nor could a child in my view claim injury against its parents subsequently if measles left it damaged after they had declined the vaccine on its behalf.

We become RESPONSIBLE when we know the consequences of our actions, for good or ill, and continue with them. This responsibility may or may not be cause for BLAME and may or may not entail LEGAL LIABILITY. The world is entering a stage where the pace of change, the size of the human population and the march of technology will bring about events that will inevitably cause damage. To mitigate this we shall have to take risks and sometime move fast to reach deadlines. There will have to be limits on liability if we are to avoid the strangulation of initiatives. We cannot possibly expect a world without mistakes, but we must limit these to NEW MISTAKES to the very best of our ability. It will greatly help that we have a European Union to bring some consistency to the risks we shall have to take while allowing certain risks to be taken nationally without damage to others. In the same way, consistency must be sought across the United States, Canada and the rest of the world. At the same time it should be realised that legal liability and draconian punishment and massive compensation for mistakes is not always the way to achieve the way forward. Transparency and control and correction is the key and what is hidden through fear of exposing a mistake can not be regulated. Fear is not the best spur, nor can we finance the escape from global warming by intending to sue those whose past actions we find responsible for it. Green Growth will require public and private enterprise. Liability should be limited in the case of climate change to those who know but persist, in government, with national policies that continue as a whole to increase the harm the environment. Green Growth is the key, other growth must be progressively abandoned.

The risks we take with new technology in medicine, food, power source development, means of transport and communication are all related to the basic human nature defined once by Baruch Spinoza as 'desire'. We want to do, to go, to explore, to possess and indeed "seek and ye shall find" is a proven truth as well as good advice. However it is also proven that what we seek is not necessarily compatible with, or anything like, the future we anticipated.  Behaviour is  more likely to bring health than chemistry. We proceed by trial and error and  have taken the future in our own hands. The responsibility falls to us to regulate our affairs, and that includes population numbers and how to control them. See: