In Europe, the Ordinary Takes a Frightening Turn
By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 1, 2001; Page A01
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
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
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
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
"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
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."
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