New technologies have sometimes had very harmful effects, but in many cases the early warning signs have been suppressed or ignored. The second volume of Late Lessons from Early Warnings investigates specific cases where danger signals have gone unheeded, in some cases leading to deaths, illness and environmental destruction.
The first volume of Late Lessons,
published in 2001, was a ground breaking report detailing the history
of technologies subsequently found to be harmful. The new 750-page volume includes 20 new case studies, with far-reaching implications for policy, science and society.
Case studies include the stories behind industrial mercury poisoning;
fertility problems caused by pesticides; hormone-disrupting chemicals
in common plastics; and pharmaceuticals that are changing ecosystems.
The report also considers the warning signs emerging from technologies
currently in use, including mobile phones, genetically modified
organisms and nanotechnology.
The historical case studies show that warnings were ignored or
sidelined until damage to health and the environment was inevitable. In
some instances, companies put short-term profits ahead of public safety,
either hiding or ignoring the evidence of risk. In others, scientists
downplayed risks, sometimes under pressure from vested interests. Such
lessons could help avoid harm from emerging technologies. However, five
of the stories illustrate the benefits of quickly responding to early
The world has changed since the first volume of Late Lessons was
published. Technologies are now taken up more quickly than before, and
are often rapidly adopted around the world. This means risks may spread
faster and further, the report says, outstripping society’s capacity to
understand, recognise and respond to these effects in time to avoid
The report recommends the wider use of the ‘precautionary principle’
to reduce hazards in cases of new and largely untested technologies and
chemicals. It states that scientific uncertainty is not a justification
for inaction, when there is plausible evidence of potentially serious
Such a precautionary approach is nearly always beneficial – after
analysing 88 cases of supposed ‘false alarm’, report authors found only
four clear cases. The report also shows that precautionary actions can
often stimulate rather than stifle innovation.
- Science should acknowledge the complexity of biological and
environmental systems, particularly where there may be multiple causes
of many different effects, the report says. It is increasingly difficult
to isolate a single agent and prove beyond doubt that it causes harm. A
more holistic view taking many different disciplines into account would
also improve the understanding and prevention of potential hazards.
- Policy makers should respond to early warnings more rapidly, the
report says, particularly in cases of large scale emerging technologies.
It proposes that those causing any future harm should pay for the
- Risk assessment can also be improved, the report says, by embracing
uncertainty more broadly and acknowledging what is not known. For
example, ‘No evidence of harm’ has often been often misinterpreted to
mean ‘evidence of no harm’ when the relevant research was not available.
- The report calls for new forms of governance involving citizens in
choices about innovation pathways and risk analysis. This would help to
reduce exposure to hazards and encourage innovations with broader
societal benefits. Greater interaction between business, governments and
citizens could foster more robust and diverse innovations at less cost
to health and the environment.