It is obvious that modern technology has brought many important benefits to humanity. The work of civil engineers on water supplies and sewage treatment has nearly eliminated diseases that were major causes of death among people of all ages. Antibiotic medications have made a number of formerly widespread fatal diseases curable. MRIs and sophisticated X-ray procedures such as CAT scans have made possible better diagnosis and, hence, treatment of a wide range of diseases and injuries.
Computers and the internet have been an enormous boon to scholarship in every field, greatly facilitating calculations and, perhaps more important, allowing quick, easy access to all kinds of information. Materials science has led to the development of a vast array of textiles, plastics, etc. useful in many ways. The list of beneficial advances in technology is endless.
But there is a serious down side. Along with the benefits, there are problems that, if not attended to, can lead to great harm. And there are good reasons to be concerned about the way such matters are dealt with. The bad news is that, even as the number of technologically sophisticated products grows at an increasing rate, the societal mechanisms for ensuring that they are not significantly harmful are being phased out.
First, a quick look at the past.
Before complaining about what is now happening, let's note that the rear-view mirror image of life one or two centuries ago is not all that great. Many biological contaminants and dangerous chemicals appeared in food and medications. Air pollution was terrible in many places (e.g., Pittsburgh, London). Water supplies were polluted, sewage disposal inadequate--leading to many deaths due to diseases such as cholera.
Hideous conditions prevailed in meat packing plants (now returning). Mercury poisoning was common. Quack medicines were pushed by small-time con artists. Ignorance, particularly about medical matters, caused much grief. Today's problems tend to differ in scale and type.
Numerous pharmaceutical products have been put on the market despite evidence of significant harmful side effects and/or, at best, marginal efficacy. Agricultural pesticides are widely used and considered essential for the operation of large factory farms. They are also used domestically for a variety of purposes. But there is ample evidence that they are harming both humans and other forms of life (other than their intended targets).
The use of lead in gasoline to boost octane ratings, and hence efficiency, was a brilliant idea, but one that has had devastating consequences in terms of damage to the health and well being of countless children and others. (Additional damage of the same kind is caused by lead in house paint, and in water pipes.)
As the scientific and technological basis for products and services marketed to the public, and for operations in the workplace, has become increasingly complex, our societal mechanisms for protecting people and the environment from harmful effects of technology, never very strong, have been systematically weakened in recent years.
The regulation of even conventional food products consumed in the US has been allowed to deteriorate greatly . Inspection of food products originating in the US is now minimal, and only token efforts are made to monitor imported food.
Certification by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of pharmaceutical products is done on the basis of test data submitted by private companies hired by the manufacturers. Negative results are routinely suppressed. A recent example of the consequences of the emasculation of the regulatory process is the 40% failure rate, within five years, of Johnson & Johnson artificial hips . The company was aware of the defect several years before it was forced to take it off the market .
A more dramatic regulatory failure is the Merck pain killer, Rofecoxib, marketed as Vioxx, about a decade ago. There were about 20 million users in the US and about 80 million worldwide. It is estimated that heart attacks attributable to this medication killed about 60,000 people . Apart from civil law suits, Merck plead guilty to a federal misdemeanor charge. No company official went to prison. In neither the Vioxx nor the artificial hips case, did the FDA act to suspend sales. These decisions were left to the manufacturers.
Nanotechnology appears to have many useful applications, but there are serious concerns about health effects . E.g., there is good reason to be concerned about the consequences of inhaling such particles, some of which resemble the asbestos particles responsible for many very serious cases of lung disease. Various studies have shown indications of harm. Nano fans have countered that these studies have not been on a sufficiently large scale to settle the question. But funding has not been provided to follow thru with investigations that might yield decisive results.
No branch of technology has evolved as fast as electronics. This has resulted in a blizzard of new kinds of consumer products, such as home computers, cell phones, watches, hand-held GPS units, electronic musical instruments, etc. Improved versions of each type of device are marketed every year or two, and long lifespan has not been a top priority.
The result is that millions of tons of such of devices, many still functional, are discarded annually in the US. This includes over 100 million cell phones, 20 million TV sets, over 40 million computers. Material of this kind is called "e-waste", and proper disposal is important because it is rich in some very toxic substances, such as mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, beryllium, and brominated flame retardants . It is the fastest growing waste stream in the country. Only a small fraction is properly disposed of. Most e-waste is discarded with other rubbish and winds up in land fills and other places where it can poison air, water, and soil.
The feeble nature of the regulatory process is nicely illustrated by the fact that, in April of 2012, after great quantities of nano particles had been used in consumer products, including food, for several years, the FDA stated that it did not have enough data to determine the safety of nanomaterials in food! . Meanwhile vast numbers of people are serving unknowingly as subjects of a great experiment as nanomaterials are deployed on a large scale in numerous products. The term "unknowingly" is doubly significant here as there is no requirement that food, or products such as sunscreens, be labeled as containing nanoparticles. So people have no way to protect themselves if they don't want to be experimental subjects. Which brings us to the question of the role of the free market in such matters.
Why worry about such problems? If a product turns out to be harmful to people, or to the environment, the invisible hand will automatically pull it out of the market place. Well, maybe not. Certainly not when the characteristics of a product are kept secret.
But, even if the fine print on a product label indicates all the ingredients, very few people, even if they notice a questionable ingredient, will understand its significance. Where, as in the nano-case, research into the extent of possible harm is grossly inadequate, not many people will refrain from buying an otherwise attractive product because of weakly based warnings of risks issued by scientists with no official standing.
We have ample experience indicating that companies producing and selling products will go to great lengths to avoid taking a profitable product off the market, despite clear indications that it is hazardous. An example of how many pharmaceutical corporations behave when one or their profitable products turns out to be dangerous, or ineffective, is shown by a clip from the website of a company whose function is to help them deal with such situations. In this clip, the company boasts of a case in which they delayed for a decade FDA action to remove a drug from the market .
As pointed out above in connection with the Vioxx case, even where there is strong evidence that a company has knowingly violated laws in the course of marketing a dangerous or otherwise defective product, it is almost unheard of for the responsible executives to wind up in prison. The only penalties for such transgressions are fines or losses in civil lawsuits. These, even when large, are always small compared to the profits raked in from the sale of the products.
Free market forces can be effective in slashing sales of products that cause noticeable harm to purchasers. But they don't do much to inhibit sales of products that are unlikely to cause trouble for buyers. E.g., individuals or companies buying certain insecticides may not be the ones to suffer if a side effect is the killing off of bees needed for crops that they do not grow . A reckless person not afraid to live dangerously may be willing to risk purchasing cheap, poor quality, automobile tires that could lead to accidents harming other drivers. The free market does nothing to shield the environment, i.e., atmosphere, bodies of water , wild life, etc.
The need for the enforcement of laws protecting people and their property from armed robbers is almost universally accepted. It is also necessary to protect people from irresponsible behavior by individuals and corporations that damage them indirectly by poisoning the environment, marketing hazardous products, etc. .
A dramatic failure of the free market is the way it has promoted all sorts of activities that are exacerbating climate change, doing virtually nothing to inhibit significantly the reckless release into the atmosphere of greenhouse gases that are at the root of the problem. An example of this failure is the way certain Asian companies manipulated a market-based scheme devised by the United Nations to reduce greenhouse gases in such a way as to make enormous profits while increasing such emissions .
We don't need cheerleaders to heap praise on technological innovations. Incentives for lauding the benefits of technology are obviously great. People don't do research and develop products unless they feel the results will have benefits. All the incentives are for stressing the benefits, the principle motivation driving the whole technology enterprise.
It is natural for those developing new ideas and products to focus on the positive aspects . For example, if you are working to develop a new, efficient light source, it would not be reasonable to expect you to spend a lot of time and energy investigating environmental problems involved in the disposal of waste generated in the manufacture of the devices.
The major burden of looking for harmful side effects of any technology has to fall on others, not on the original innovators (altho it would be nice if they were alert to, and called attention to, possible problems). There are strong incentives for innovators, and manufacturers, to downplay harmful aspects of their work. It is particularly unlikely that they will look carefully for, and call attention to, detrimental long-term effects.
So, at a time when more and more powerful, but risky, technologies are being deployed, it is very important to focus attention on possible downsides of these innovations. Each new product must be carefully scrutinized. Long-term and synergetic effects must be considered, including ultimate disposal.
The prevalent attitude is that, unless there is indisputable evidence that a product is harmful, it can be produced and sold. I.e., a product is considered innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Furthermore, the agencies that might serve as investigators and prosecutors in such cases have been put on starvation diets.
What is needed is a course reversal to strengthen greatly our societal mechanisms for protecting the public health and safety, as well as the environment, via the exercise of the precautionary principle. That is, those proposing to expose the public to new technologies must bear the burden of proof that these are safe. Adequate monitoring in the form of greatly strengthened regulatory agencies would probably entail public expenditures comparable to what is currently spent on national defense.
After posting the above, I read an article  describing in some detail the way the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is prevented from carrying out its mission by an array of techniques developed by the industries it is supposed it monitor. It is well worth reading.
 William Hubbard, "Wrongly Blaming The FDA"The Washington Post, May 8, 2006
 Ben Goldacre, "Health Care's Trick Coin", February 1, 2013
 Barry Meier, "Maker Hid Data About Design Flaw in Hip Implant, Records Show", NY Times, January 25, 2013
 Wikipedia, "Rofecoxib", Wikipedia
 Stephen H. Unger, "Nano Particles--Giga Benefits, Giga Risks", Ends and Means, April 4, 2012
 Heather Levin, "Electronic Waste (E-Waste) Recycling and Disposal - Facts, Statistics & Solutions"Money Crashers, March 29, 2011
 Stephanie Strom, "Study Looks at Particles Used in Food", NY Times, February 5, 2013
 Weinberg, "Case Studies: Support to Drug Manufacturers", Company website, 2001
 Heather Pilatic, "Widely-Used Pesticides Killing Bees", The Huffington Post, 3/29/2012
 Charles Duhigg, "Clean Water Laws Are Neglected, at a Cost in Suffering ", NY Times, September 12, 2009
 Stephen H. Unger, "Regulating the Invisible Hand: A Contradiction?", Ends and Means, January 15, 2008
 Elisabeth Rosenthal, Andrew W. Lehren, "Profits on Carbon Credits Drive Output of a Harmful Gas", NY Times, August 8, 2012
 Stephen H. Unger, "Safety Last-Corporate Profits First", Ends and Means, September 29, 2010
 David Heath, Ronnie Greene, "Chromium VI: EPA Contaminated by Conflict of Interest", PBS, February 13, 2012
Comments are welcomed and can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu
Don't forget to replace (at) with @ and (dot) with the symbol .
(The reason for this peculiar procedure, requiring you to replace "at" with "@" and "dot" with "." is that, if the email address were written properly to begin with, it could be picked up by programs that automatically scan the internet to collect addresses to be sold to spammers, i.e., those who send out junk e-mail.)
Return to Ends and Means to see other articles that you might find interesting.