Friday, June 13, 2003

Precautionary strikes

It isn't just in the fields of science and health that an outlook obsessed with safety comes to the fore, these days. The end of the firemen's strike is a good time to note how strikes can be subverted by an overriding concern with safety.

The firemen demanded a wage of 30,000 a year, citing the fact that they had fallen behind the old wage levels from 10 years ago in real terms. When the employers were only prepared to offer an increase far below that, and with many strings attached, they voted overwhelmingly for strike action. In fact, they were probably more united behind action than any major union has been for years.

However, there were just 15 days of strikes in 10 months. Why? Their case was that they took terrible risks all the time, and therefore deserved more money. But by emphasising safety and risk in their arguments, they were then effectively saying 'loads of people could die if we go on strike'. This was unacceptable to them, and to the public. So, at every possible opportunity - a new turn in negotiations or the war with Iraq - they cancelled the strikes. Effectively, this made it impossible for them to apply any pressure on the employers. It would have been better for them to argue that ensuring safety was the government's responsibility, which they were employed to carry out. If the government could not offer them proper payment for doing so, they would withdraw their labour. Ultimately, the success of a fire strike is built on the number of buildings that burn down - unpalatable when stated like that, but basically true.

As it happens, probably fewer fires took place during the strikes because people were doubly careful.

Firefighters end dispute, Guardian, 13 June 2003

Tuesday, June 10, 2003

A pinch of salt

Many ready meals eaten by children contain salt levels that would be harmful to adults, says the Food Standards Agency (FSA). Ready meals are convenient, acknowledges FSA head Sir John Krebs - 'but our survey shows that many have very high levels of salt in them, leaving little room for the salt we take in from other foods such as bread and cereals'. The FSA says high salt intakes can lead to health problems in later life as a result of elevated blood pressure.

However, the link between salt intake and blood pressure is more controversial than such advice suggests. A recent report in the British Medical Journal concluded: 'Intensive interventions, unsuited to primary care or population prevention programmes, provide only small reductions in blood pressure and sodium excretion, and effects on deaths and cardiovascular events are unclear. Advice to reduce sodium intake may help people on antihypertensive drugs to stop their medication while maintaining good blood pressure control.'

In short, if you've already got high blood pressure, reducing salt intake might help your hypertension. Otherwise, your salt intake probably isn't having much effect. On the other hand, the thought of feeding your children something harmful might send your blood pressure up a notch or two.

It would be better for the authorities to devote their energies to treating the sick than worrying parents with health warnings of dubious relevance. And parents should take such pronouncements with a pinch of the white stuff.

Parents warned over ready meals salt, BBC News, 10 June 2003
Systematic review of long term effects of advice to reduce dietary salt in adults, British Medical Journal, 21 September 2002 [pdf, 320KB]

Another report supports GM

A new report by the Nuffield Council on Bio-ethics supports the idea that GM crops could be very beneficial to developing countries. The BBC reports:

'Nuffield Council director Sandy Thomas said the council recognised it was discussing only part of a much larger picture. "Food security and the reduction of poverty in developing countries are extremely complex issues. We do not claim that GM crops will eliminate the need for economic, political or social change, or that they will feed the world. However, we do believe that GM technology could make a useful contribution, in appropriate circumstances, to improving agriculture and the livelihood of poor farmers in developing countries." '

The developing world argument seems particularly popular among pro-science people who want to get GM accepted. But the problem is that it fails to confront the anti-science prejudices that inform much of the debate. So, while I welcome the Nuffield report, it would be nice if someone would just spell out why GM is good for us in the UK, too.

All of this is grist to the mill, as the UK's public debate about GM gets underway. Except that giving the general public a substantial say in the matter is particularly pointless, as Paul Reeves illustrates with his article for spiked describing the first public consultation. Most people simply don't know enough about the subject to pass judgement.

GM crops 'good for developing countries', BBC News, 10 June 2003

Modified discussion, spiked, 5 June 2003