Isn’t modern life complicated?

Modern life is complicated, and developments to improve our lives can have unintended consequences that may not become apparent for some time. There have been several examples in the press recently.

The first relates to two pesticides that have been shown to have adverse effects on bees. One is a group of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, which protect crops such as oil seed rape. The other is a pesticide called coumaphos, used on beehives to protect the swarm from the Varroa mite. The chemicals are thought to affect the bees’ brain physiology, inactivating the brain cells that bees use when learning, and impairing both memory and the ability to navigate. Bees that cannot learn cannot find food, thus threatening the survival of the whole colony.

In a completely different context, flame retardants are chemicals that inhibit or slow down the spread of fire. They were introduced for our protection, reducing the speed at which fire spreads through household items. For example, many materials used as mattress fillings are highly flammable. Upholstered furniture, curtains and blinds can also burn rapidly if untreated. UK legislation establishes levels of fire resistance for many household products such as these, and flame retardants help manufacturers to meet these standards. However, the chemicals, which can migrate out of the product and can be inhaled as dust or swallowed by young children, have been linked to cancer, lower IQ, developmental problems and decreased fertility.

Finally, concern is increasing over the amount of atmospheric radiation from man-made sources such as wi-fi, mobile phone signals, radio, TV and fluorescent bulbs. The European Assembly notes that our exposure to radio-frequency radiation is gradually increasing as the use of mobile phones, wi-fi and similar devices increases. Scientific studies are inconclusive, but some radiation is thought to be carcinogenic, and the Assembly says that exposure can be “more or less potentially harmful”, and it therefore advices a precautionary approach rather than “waiting for high levels of scientific and clinical proof”. This is especially important in children, who “seem to be most at risk from head tumours”.

But pesticides, flame retardants and various forms of radiation all contribute to what we think of as modern life. Would society without these developments be inferior or more ‘primitive’, or is it wise to moderate their use in order to protect human and environmental health?

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