In a faculty lecture held Friday, June 2, UCR Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Carl Cranor presented his views on toxic contaminants and the law. During the event, Cranor was presented the UCR Faculty Research Lecturer Award by Chancellor Wilcox, and gave a talk highlighting important issues pertaining to toxic contaminant regulation and consumer protection in modern society.
Cranor’s presentation, titled “The Law’s Contribution to a Lifetime Arc of Good Health,” focused on toxicants found in daily life and detailed the existing and possible future legal responses to these health threats. Building on years of research, Cranor’s philosophical, ethical and legal approach to the problem of contamination and pollution offered a unique framework with which to tackle these issues. Cranor stressed that collaboration with toxicology experts was integral to his work, as the scientific knowledge offered by these individuals allowed accurate risk and impact measurement.
Beginning with a brief summary of the evolution of the philosophy of public health, Cranor presented different milestones in the development of both preventative and reparative, or “tort,” legislation. Each milestone signified changes in attitude regarding the relationship between scientific evidence and appropriate legal action.
Of note were several legal cases which sparked debates about the admissibility of evidence and its relevance to victim compensation. These cases shared a common theme: Individuals working for a company present in an area contaminated by toxic substances would find their health seriously degraded. Consequently, legal action would be taken, as these victims would seek monetary compensation for their suffering. In many cases, however, evidence pointing to the potential hazards of these contaminants would be refuted by the legal teams of the polluting companies. Cranor highlighted the rise of “corporate phalanxes of ‘doubting experts’,” as he termed the lawyers charged with defeating compensation cases on the basis of insufficiently conclusive evidence. He also went on to point out that, in many cases, relying on overly stringent scientific tests, which, although very accurate, could never absolutely prove causation, was an error leading to “bad law.” Instead, Cranor proposed, “wider, more sensitive (analysis) of evidence (could) foster better science and increase redress of harms.”
Subsequently, Cranor discussed the existing problems with preventative law. Such laws, he argued, were often hampered by inadequate regulation and extensive review processes. According to estimates, over 84,000 untested substances are allowed to enter the US market under current regulation. This has led to over “304 manmade toxicants” contaminating US citizens, often without their knowledge. Compounding these problems is a long review process which often has potentially toxic substances entering the market while they await lengthy, sometimes decades-long review. The presence of these materials can cause severe health problems and long-term damage; an expedited review process, however, could mitigate these risks and reduce damage.
Particularly susceptible to toxicant exposure are children and pregnant women, a problem Cranor also discussed at length. Children, he argued, have more easily compromised anatomies, and exposure to chemicals can often alter lives drastically. Pregnant women are also at risk due to the potential damage to fetuses within the wombs of mothers exposed to dangerous chemicals. Such exposure, through chemicals such as thalidomide (a formerly common sedative), methylmercury (often an industrial byproduct) and diethylstilbestrol (a once-common estrogen supplement) to name a few, can cause major health issues, including cancer, cerebral palsy, mental health issues and many other physical problems. Besides the moral hazards and the risk of depriving children of lifetime opportunities, exposure to toxic materials has economic effects; childhood cancer, Cranor estimates, costs approximately $300 million a year.
Cranor’s presentation concluded with an overview of future developments in public health policy. While he stressed that toxic contaminant exposure is unavoidable, he predicted slow but steady progress in establishing stronger protections and more effective redress through developing tort laws. When asked whether he was optimistic about the future given the current attitudes toward public health, Cranor said, “These laws need to be properly administered. They can and must serve justice goals only if well administered and if scientific evidence is used properly.”