Guy’s news: Baby orcas & the rarity of certainty

Last year a dead orca was washed ashore on the Isle of Tiree in Scotland. PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) levels in its body were 20 times greater than what scientists consider manageable for cetaceans. The 20-year-old whale had not bred in its life; indeed observers have not seen any orcas born in British waters for 25 years and there is strong evidence of impaired reproduction in many sea mammals from heavily polluted European waters.

Last year a dead orca was washed ashore on the Isle of Tiree in Scotland. PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) levels in its body were 20 times greater than what scientists consider manageable for cetaceans. The 20-year-old whale had not bred in its life; indeed observers have not seen any orcas born in British waters for 25 years and there is strong evidence of impaired reproduction in many sea mammals from heavily polluted European waters. PCBs were manufactured and marketed as coolants, lubricants and sealants by Monsanto and others for 30 years until their ban in the 1970s, when their toxicity could no longer be denied. The stability and persistence which contributed to their industrial value means they still pollute our oceans and waterways, and have accumulated in top predators globally. Clearly testing and regulation were inadequate. Manufacturers profited and moved on; the planet is still paying the price.

A recent report commissioned by the EU suggests the dangers posed by pesticides are underestimated and that the systems of safety assessment are flawed. The collective damage to our nervous systems and the consequent loss of IQ alone is valued at a staggering £125bn per year. I am a little sceptical as to how they arrived at that figure, but once again the NFU made my blood boil with their response: “It is important to point out that this report makes it quite clear that our understanding in these areas is limited, the evidence is not conclusive, and the significance of the findings for public safety is unclear.” So should we carry on using nerve toxins and endocrine disrupters until it is clear? Surely we don’t need 100% certainty to restrain the quest for profit at any cost?

Certainty is rare; perhaps there’s only a 50% chance that we are substantially underestimating the risks of pesticides, perhaps the chance of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change is only 80%. Yet for those with power to knowingly expose our planet and future generations to such risks in the name of profit is psychopathic. I am so tired of hearing farmers and businesses lobby for less regulation when there is such evidence that we need more. Sometimes it will be wrong and prove over-cautious, but that is a small price to pay for the times that it proves right.

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