|March 21, 2001|
Europe is freaking out
Mad cow disease is a real threat and has helped stoke the fear gripping the continent. But Europeans are now so timorous, they cannot contemplate any risk without panicking
Remy De La Mauviniere, The Associated Press
European leaders have adopted health hazards -- real and imagined -- as the continent's new bogeyman.
LONDON - Spend a little time in Europe, and you start to feel nothing is safe. Over here, cellphones cause brain damage and T-bone steaks are lethal. Flying economy class gives you blood clots. Even that plastic toy bobbing in the bathtub is toxic.
At least that is what Europeans are told. These days, hardly a week goes by without another health scare sweeping the continent. Never mind that many of the warnings are absurd, or based on flimsy science. Europeans are now so jittery, so convinced that modern life is a minefield, that the merest whiff of risk sends them scurrying for cover.
Even as incomes rise and lifespans lengthen, the continent is gripped by a wave of Euro-fear, a shared continental cringe.
"Europe has lost its nerve," says Frank Furedi, a sociologist at Britain's University of Kent and an expert on the new malaise. "Every problem today, however small, is represented as a major disaster."
One health scare is no longer enough for this cowering continent. With the panic over mad cow disease just starting to ease, Europe has found another reason to freak out: the outbreak in Britain and France of foot-and-mouth disease, which does not even affect humans. And that's just for starters.
Every week brings another study suggesting some cherished food, textile, gadget or hobby may be harmful. The phthalates used to soften plastic toys are poisonous; a standard measles vaccine causes autism; electrical power lines trigger leukemia; genetically modified foods are hazardous. Last week, European mothers were warned that babies breast-fed beyond four months are prone to heart disease in later life.
The health scares are often sparked by a single study. Some dominate the headlines for weeks, others disappear after a day. But the net effect is always the same: more confusion, more boycotts, more fear.
The hysteria is a little puzzling. After all, Europe is the birthplace of Rationalism and its population is well-educated. The continent has also weathered some of the most apocalyptic events in human history, from the bubonic plague to the Holocaust and two World Wars. So why have Europeans suddenly turned timorous?
The very real threat posed by the human variant of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), has certainly played a part. Yet commentators blame environmentalists, the media and especially politicians for fostering a culture of paranoia and panic.
To fill the void left by Soviet communism, European leaders have adopted health hazards -- real or imagined -- as the new bogeyman. "Without the old battle between right and left, politicians need a new mission," says Thomas Deichmann, a German writer who specializes in health scares. "Today, the easiest way for them to connect with the people is to pander to their fears about health."
Which makes the European Union panderer-in-chief. Driven by the so-called precautionary principle, which holds that anything that may pose a danger should be banned or heavily regulated, the EU churns out reams of safety measures that all add up to a single message: that not even reasonable precautions and common sense can save us from the health hazards that lurk round every corner.
Under EU rules, for instance, sports stadiums cannot sell off old plastic seats as souvenirs if they contain cadmium -- even though a fan would have to eat a whole seat to be poisoned by the substance. Another EU directive states that every pair of rubber boots must come with a user's manual in 12 languages. A stringent law on gas emissions threatens to bankrupt scores of European crematoria.
Nothing escapes the crusade to make life 100% predictable and safe. A few years ago, the EU famously outlawed bananas with an "abnormal curvature."
The Brussels-based regulators are even trying to reinvent the ladder. Last September, they passed a directive prescribing a wider gap between rungs. The aim is to stop people from indulging in the "high-risk practice" of resting their knees on the next rung up.
The latest rumour from Brussels is that all 50-year-olds will have to retake their driving tests.
"The European Commission is obsessed with eliminating every last risk from human life," says Andreas Hansen, a Copenhagen-based pollster and sociologist. "By treating the public like small children, by nannying them all the time, they are making Europeans into people who cannot contemplate risk, however trivial, however theoretical, without panicking."
The culture of fear stems partly from earlier failures by European officialdom to defend public health. In the 1980s, hundreds died across the continent after eating French soft cheeses and Belgian pâté tainted with listeriosis. Around the same time, the French government allowed HIV-tainted blood to contaminate hundreds of people. More recently, EU governments shattered public confidence by first playing down the risk from BSE, then exaggerating it.
"Europeans have lost faith in the institutions designed to protect their health," says Pascal Linardi, a Paris-based political analyst. "Now, people always suspect the worst, and are reluctant to listen when experts claim something is safe."
A few weeks ago, Europe worked itself into a frenzy over unsubstantiated reports that depleted-uranium munitions had damaged the health of NATO troops in Yugoslavia. Even as scientists called for calm, governments scrambled to contain Balkan War Syndrome.
Sometimes a single death is enough to put Europe on red alert. When a young woman died recently after flying to London from Sydney, experts blamed her death on "Economy-Class Syndrome," where a blood clot forms after sitting long hours in a cramped airplane seat. The British press predicted thousands of deaths, prompting terrified travellers to cancel flights.
To its own surprise, Europe, which launched the Industrial Revolution and still leads the world in fields ranging from genetics to cellphones, is now a continent of technophobes. Every scientific breakthrough leaves the public feeling slightly queasy.
Some see the technophobia as part of the backlash against globalization. Others tie it to Europe's lingering anti-Americanism, since the United States is more inclined to accept advances.
"In North America you find a robust acceptance of progress," says Dr. Furedi. "In Europe people have come to regard progress with tremendous suspicion."
Even modern European philosophers affect a sulky Luddism. Gunter Grass, the German novelist, believes melancholy is the natural European response to the "lusty appeals of progress." Unlike the happy-go-lucky American, he argues, a European is more at home with "knowledge that engenders disgust."
Nowhere is that ethos more apparent than in the debate over genetically modified crops. Many studies show new corn, soyabean and other hybrids to be safe. Canadians and Americans eat them without blinking. But to Europeans they are "Frankenstein foods." Last spring, when trace quantities of modified seeds were found in bags of Canadian seed sold to EU farmers, European consumers went berserk, returning thousands of boxes of cornflakes to supermarkets. Since then, the EU has made it extremely difficult to plant new genetic hybrids here.
Technophobia also sours Europe's love affair with cellphones. Even as they chatter into their handsets, Europeans are haunted by research suggesting the transmission signals can fry the human brain.
The key word here is "suggesting." Every EU health scare feeds on the lack of conclusive scientific evidence. Having long ago transferred their faith from priests to scientists as the ultimate guardians of the truth, Europeans now find the men and women in white coats don't have all the answers.
Researchers disagree, for instance, on whether earphones reduce or increase the risk of radiation from cellphones. By the same token, no one really knows how BSE jumps from cows to humans, or how long the incubation period is.
Grey areas allow the media to speculate wildly. In Germany, even the stodgy Frankfurter Allgemeine likened BSE to the 14th-century Black Death: "Once it broke out, bubonic plague spread like wildfire. BSE is capable of doing the same." Since 1995, BSE has killed 84 people, far fewer than die on Europe's roads every day.
Yet the culture of fear may not last forever. Some think Europeans will eventually regain their nerve.
"Over the long term, people are not satisfied with irrational arguments all the time," says Mr. Deichmann. "One day, Europeans will grow tired of all these health scares."
What, one wonders, will they worry about then?