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Food—small changes and big effects

Food is a high priority; we not only want enough to survive, but also like to enjoy it. Therefore a good chef will add traces of salt, herbs, etc. to add subtlety and flavour. In terms of volume, these essential additives may only be one thousandth or less of the meal, yet they are crucial. Less obvious (at least to the general public) is that for our health we need minute traces of different chemical elements and compounds to stimulate and regulate our body. In some cases, the quantities are mere parts per million of the total food intake. We may think these are incredibly small quantities and be surprised that they matter. In fact, viewed from modern advanced electronics or optics, they are big numbers. I have just mentioned that in many technologies, such as in the manufacture of semiconductors or optical fibres, it is essential to control trace impurity effects down in the range of parts per billion (i.e. one part per thousand million). To measure and understand this level of sensitivity was unimaginable until the latter part of the twentieth century. It is not easy: it is equivalent to identifying a single individual in a population as large as China or India.

Food flavouring, semiconductor technology, control of our biological processes, including growth, have in common that they are all extremely sensitive to tiny traces of a wide variety of compounds. My non-scientific friends are invariably surprised that such tiny quantities of material are important (except in food), but many of the downside effects of technology are due precisely to such sensitivity. Therefore I will introduce it a number of times, in various types of situation, not least as my scientific colleagues are often just as astonished. Particularly difficult examples to forecast result from residues of drugs and agricultural chemicals, as not only do we not understand their possible effects, but they can accumulate in particular plants or animals (including us).

Openness to new technologies can outstrip our caution, as will become apparent with many of my examples. Half a century of being able to monitor tiny quantities of materials is great for front-line scientists, but there is no way this perception of importance can reach those who develop and use new materials, especially since until very recently we had no idea that such small levels of chemicals could have dramatic effects on our health and survival. Even when the dangers are known, the details tend to be hidden in the medical or technical literature, which is unlikely to be read by the general public. It may also be ignored by specialists if it conflicts with their previous ideas. Additionally, the literature is expanding exponentially, so even experts are likely to miss valuable and relevant new information.

Two other factors exist; the first is fairly obvious, but the second is not. The people most directly working on a product, its applications, and side effects are likely to be those employed by the company that makes the product. They will focus on the advances, not the drawbacks, both because that is human nature, but also because the companies will not want to publicize the downside of their goods and chemicals. The contracts of many employees do not allow them to publish any result unless it is agreed by the company. In extreme cases, there may be whistle-blowers who ignore this, but they can face potential prosecution and may become unemployable by related industries (or worse, if the disclosure is of work conducted by a government body). The second, less obvious difficulty is that both scientific journals and the general media are reluctant to print items that say a process or idea is wrong, or that some previous headline example is no longer seen to be valid.

I have experienced this difficulty on more than one occasion, where I recognized there was a very common serious flaw in the way particular types of experiment were conducted and analyzed. In each case, the mistakes had been made by several hundred authors, including me. Individually, everyone I spoke to agreed that I had spotted long-standing errors, but there was great difficulty in getting into print. The journal editors involved were worried that their refereeing process was being criticized, or there were too many papers in their journals that were incorrect. I persevered, and eventually all the items were published and are now well cited.

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