In Europe, the Ordinary Takes a Frightening Turn

By T.R. Reid, Washington Post, Thursday 1 March 2001; Page A01

Health Scares Confound Continent

LONDON—A bowl of cornflakes can kill you—not to mention a ham sandwich or a T-bone steak. Getting vaccinated can kill you. Flying economy class can kill you, and business class isn't much better. The rubber duckie in your bathtub can kill you (and your children). And put down that cell phone, before it kills you!

Such is the woeful catalogue of warnings that confront Europeans these days as the continent veers almost weekly from one health panic to the next. From Belfast to Belgrade, wealthy, well-educated Europe is regularly swept by frightening reports of new dangers said to be inherent to contemporary life. The lack of scientific basis for many of the worries doesn't stanch the flood.

Americans have health concerns, too, but not on this scale. The year 2001 is barely eight weeks old and already public opinion and public officials here have been rattled by alarms over risks—proven and not—from genetically modified corn, hormone-fed beef and pork, mad cow disease, a widely used measles vaccine, narrow airline seats said to cause blood clots and cellular phones said to cause brain damage.

If these stories were true, we should all be dead by now, quipped Mart Saarma, a biologist at the Helsinki Institute of Biotechnology.

Saarma attributes the culture of fear to carry-over from genuine health problems, trends in environmentalism, anti-Americanism and a pessimistic strain in the European psyche. It is a matter of emotion here, he said. Americans seem to be pragmatic about new ideas and inventions. Europeans tend to worry. That leads to this concept of being always on the safe side—being against anything new until it is absolutely proven.

It seems strange that this aversion to the new should break out in Europe, which gave the world the industrial revolution, quantum physics and modern genetics. Europe is the home of the Nobel Prize, the million-dollar award that celebrates scientific advances. Europeans cloned Dolly the sheep. They invented Viagra.

The continent remains a formidable force in global technology. The world's fastest (the Concorde) and biggest (the forthcoming 550-seat Airbus A380) commercial jetliners are European products. Finland's Nokia and Sweden's Ericsson dominate global cellular phone markets, having passed the U.S. leader, Motorola, two years ago.

And yet a pervasive technophobia throbs like background music beneath the rhythms of everyday life here, fueled by skeptical media, the political success of environmentally minded Green parties and a growing regulatory apparatus at European Union headquarters in Brussels.

The fear stems in large part from Europe's experience with a genuine health risk, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease. The epidemic began in Britain in the 1980s and has recently been detected among beef cattle in France, Germany and Italy. A variant of the disease is believed to have killed about 84 people over the past decade and has forced the slaughter of millions of head of cattle.

In the case of mad cow, Europe's staple entree is being potentially contaminated by a poorly understood disease. Even worse, governments hit by the crisis tended to insist at first that everything was fine—and then backtracked. Eventually, Europeans decided that official assurances were close to worthless.

There is no question that BSE influenced people's trust in the whole public safety regime, said Michael Meacher, Britain's environment minister. We live with this now when other perceived risks come along. People are less willing to listen to experts who say, ‘There's nothing to worry about.’

In recent weeks, Britain has embarked on a campaign against another animal ailment, foot-and-mouth disease, after it appeared among a dozen pigs last week. Although humans seldom contract the disease, 15,000 animals have been killed or will be killed to prevent its spread, British authorities said.

Fear has spread to other foods and products, especially those that result from new technologies. Most intense has been the reaction against genetically modified crops, known here by the shorthand term GMO, for genetically modified organism. Americans and Canadians consume genetic hybrids of corn, soybeans and other foods every day. A National Academy of Sciences study concluded that new varieties are no different from traditional hybrids.

But GMOs are restricted across Europe; the media treat the crops as if they were lethal. Last spring, when it was reported that minute quantities—well below 1 percent—of GMO seeds had inadvertently been mixed into bags of Canadian seed sold to European farmers in 1998 and 1999, newspapers warned of contamination and poisoning. Frightened consumers returned boxes of cornflakes to grocery stores demanding refunds.

This month the European Parliament mandated a rigorous approval process before any new genetic hybrid could be planted in European soil. The sponsor of the plan proudly labeled it the toughest in the world.

Similar scares surround pork and beef raised with growth hormones; rubber duckies and other plastic toys made with softeners called phthalates; and the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine.

Cellular phones are much more widely used in Europe than in the United States, but they, too, often evoke a confused state of dread. A British consumer group last year suggested that cell phone owners use earphones to reduce the risk of brain damage from transmission signals. Just as consumers were digesting that idea, another report concluded that earphones might actually increase the risk. A British government study last year found no link between cell phones and brain damage.

The European media have been full of reports this year on the alleged dangers of depleted uranium, a metal used in munitions during the Persian Gulf War and in Kosovo. Several European governments have launched high-profile emergency tests of the material. Many studies in the United States have found it safe.

This winter's major health scare in Britain has been economy-class syndrome—the fear that long hours spent in a cramped airplane seat will lead to deep vein thrombosis, causing blood clots to travel to the lungs. There has been one confirmed death this year—a young woman flying from Sydney to London—but newspapers have suggested that the toll may reach 2,000 annually.

Why is Europe so hung up on health problems? One theory ties the phenomenon to the decline of religious faith. Churchgoers now amount to less than 15 percent of the population, said Philip Lader, the U.S. ambassador to Britain, and this might prompt a human need for some other larger-than-life issues. Perhaps that has something to do with the religious-like fervor of the opposition to [genetically modified] foods.

Since many of the technological breakthroughs that lead to phobias are identified with big American or multinational companies, the negative response may tie in with the aversion to globalization among the working class and the anti-Americanism that is never far from the surface among Europe's intelligentsia.

One of our big problems with GMO crops, said Des D'Souza of the European seed company AgrEvo, is that people think they all come from the U.S., and right there you start to generate resentment.

Europe's wariness of the new also reflects the feeling of anomie, of systemic breakdown, that is central to much of modern European philosophy. The German novelist Gunter Grass has written that the proper European response to the lusty appeals of progress is melancholy. In contrast to the American conception of happiness embodied in the say-cheese smile, Grass argues, the European is more comfortable with knowledge that engenders disgust.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has cautioned Britons about a loss of faith in science, which he says is particularly problematic now because Europe depends on technology to maintain its place in global markets. Some health concerns may be reasonable, Blair said last month, but it is possible to overdo that very greatly.

Finally, there is a sense in Europe that genetic manipulation, wireless communication, global transportation and other wonders of modernity hinder the appreciation of more traditional aspects of human life. That view is often set forth by one of the continent's most admired thinkers, Pope John Paul II.

In a recent sermon, the pope recalled the biblical admonition to consider the lilies of the field . . . they toil not, neither do they spin. The contemporary lesson to draw from the lilies, he said, is, In the era of technology, our life risks becoming always more anonymous and . . . man becomes incapable of enjoying the beauties of the creator.