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Tuesday, 6 July 2010

How Long Will It Take?

BBC4 repeated the “Medical Mavericks” programme last night that dealt with researchers who arrived at conclusions by unorthodox methods including experimenting on themselves. Dr. Barry Marshall featured who with Dr. Robin Warren earned a Nobel Prize for establishing that the bacteria Helicobacter Pylori playing a major role in cases of gastritis that might become severe and lead on to stomach ulcers.

For a long time ulcers had been attributed to stress, spicy foods and lifestyle eating and had been treated in various expensive ways often including major surgery. I recall too many people who suffered badly from ulcers which were then considered a curse of modern living. Marshall’s work meant that ulcers could be treated far more simply and quickly with readily available antibiotics and bismuth. He and Warren were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2007.

Despite modern communications and the rapid transmission of knowledge it still took over twenty years for most of the medical establishment and practitioners to accept Marshall’s work and more importantly to act on it. Perhaps because it was cheap and quick and meant a great many products and a great many people were affected by it. Marshall was working in Western Australia with a small number of people in a community that were happy with independent thinkers.

If we look back across history we can see much longer periods before medical and other authorities accepted that major medical issues were caused or affected by things they did not allow for or expect. It often took someone who was on the fringe of the profession or even an outsider to make the critical breakthrough and often they received few thanks or recognition. Read the medical histories and those of industrial development for the many examples.

In my lifetime it took a long time before it was recognised that tobacco had adverse effects and consequences. The Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan (1957-1963) famously refused to allow the matter to be discussed in Cabinet on the grounds that smoking was no more dangerous than crossing the road. I wonder if he ever tried to cross The Strand or Oxford Street, or even Whitehall on a busy weekday?

His refusal might have had something to do with the duties on tobacco which yielded 17% then of tax revenues and the number of marginal constituencies with large tobacco factories in them. Never mind the number of members of his cabinet or party in the House of Commons with financial and other interests in the industry. Also despite the UK’s continuing problems with the Balance of Trade in which tobacco imports were a major item, but most of it came from the USA, and of course there was the Special Relationship to worry about.

I am clear in my mind that there is a substantial public health crisis in train and will soon emerge. It arises from the extent of chemical contamination of our daily lives and the impact on the human body. What I believe is one of the worst areas of this is the unregulated, irresponsible and extensive impact of the synthetic fragrance industry. It is going to hit, to hit hard and not just some time in the distant future.

One thing that will be certain will be the difficulty of gaining acceptance of the idea that severe air pollution can cause health problems. You might think you already know this. We accept that coal miners and quarry workers are at high risk. We accept that factory workshops need thorough ventilation. We accept that traffic emissions are a real problem. We accept that tobacco can cause many people severe health issues. We accept that millions of people were gassed to death in the Second World War.

But the media, the government and their related interests will never accept that pumping unlimited amounts of synthetic chemicals into our lungs can ever cause a problem so long as they are labelled as fragrances.

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