Arsenic and Old Maize

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You've heard that quote, "The trouble is not what we know, it's what we know that isn't so?"

Well, one of the things I do at the Reason Public Policy Institute is argue for safety, health, and environmental policy that is rooted in the sound use of science, and more often than not "what we don't know" is glossed over in favor of unsupportable statements of certainty. Time after time, we hear that this policy or that policy is based on "sound science," and that the "debate over the science is done, now it's time to implement!" But it's virtually never that simple.

From dietary fat to dietary salt, from Alar, to DDT time after time, the claims of activists have been shown to be erroneous but not until after hasty policy actions have caused more harm than good. As policy analyst Aaron Wildavsky has pointed out, making policy while uncertainty is high is almost guaranteed to produce a net harm, depriving us of resources while doing nothing to reduce or eliminate risk.

In my reading, I happened across two articles of interest in this regard. In a Reuters news article, "Arsenic, King of Poisons Gets an Image Makeover," we learn that arsenic, the chemical that poisoned the Bush Administration's early days, may not be the demon it was made out to be. In fact, on closer inspection, this chemical that some called unsafe at any dose looks more like a medicinal and micronutrient! Of course, that probably won't stop the clamor for driving arsenic levels in drinking water down to zero, regardless of the cost.

And in an Associated Press article, "Fight Rages over Bioengineered Corn," we see that claims being made about the danger of bio-engineered crops are being rolled out faster than the science can back them up. First, the scare over the poisoning of monarch butterflies by bio-engineered corn was refuted by follow-up studies, and now, no less prestigious a journal than _Nature_ is eating its (scary) words about engineered corn, words that many scientists feel should never have seen print. In a world full of starving people whose hope rests on the successful development of biotechnology, the scare-campaign against genetically-engineered foods adds insult to injury.

Neither of these articles represents the last word on the subject, of course, and science is always evolving. But both of them should offer food for thought to those who want to make policy first and ask questions later. Not only does that impulse waste society's resources and misdirect its attention from larger threats, hasty regulation undermines our individual liberty and economic competitiveness, both of which are wellsprings of safety, health, and environmental quality.

Kenneth Green, D.Env., is Chief Scientist for the free-market Reason Public Policy Institute (, which is part of the Reason Foundation, and he can be reached at:[at]