Frogs, Freaks and the Precautionary Principle

In the US and Canada there have been numerous reports of freaky frogs with too many legs and unusual eyes. Scientists suspect environmental toxins were the cause because frogs have soft and permeable skin that allows chemicals to pass into their bodies. The water-land creatures are like the singing canaries miners once used to warn them of dangerous gases. If they are in trouble, people probably are too.

Woman in boat, Kashmir
Woman in boat, Kashmir

School children reported the unusual occurrence. No doubt it was part of their routine inspection of the day’s catch at the local pond. In children’s social circles, frogs are like gold that can be traded for comic books and other useful treasures. A side benefit for them is that playing with frogs is a live science lesson.

I know this firsthand. My early experiences with frogs initiated me into environmental sciences. The pond near my grade school was full of wiggling baby polliwogs. My brother and I used to run knee-deep in muddy water and scoop them up in small glass jars. I mistakenly fed them a steady diet of child-preferred foods like rice to accelerate their miraculous transformations into adults. I compared the live specimens daily with pictures of frogs and anxiously awaited the small protrusions from the sides that were supposed to turn into webbed appendages. My polliwogs would become hermaphroditic monsters–half fish and half frog.

They were helpless but they failed to inspire my nurturing motherly instinct. Instead they appealed to my callous scientific curiosity–the kind that motivates kids to stick pins into worms to make them squirm. Occasionally I would chase them around the jar with my index finger to feel them move. Polliwog skin has the cold sensation of plants and I treated my captives more like weeds than amphibians.

After a few days I had to change their water. This led to my first lesson in polliwog survival. Never put polliwogs in your own drinking water–it could kill them. The first time I put tap water into the jars the polliwogs became listless. Then their skins showed a whitish glaze and eventually the poor things floated on the surface. The school science class helped ease my conscience with a verdict of “death from unknown causes.” I could go to the pond and try again.

As an adult I have pondered the question: If our household water was bad for the polliwogs, what was it doing to our health? Even without scientific proof, the logical course of action should have been clear. If the water is causing polliwogs to die, then we should stay away from it. Unfortunately, as reasonable as that logic may seem, doing something about pollution is too often delayed for lack of scientific evidence.

In an era of great public confidence in scientific testimony, anything less seems unworthy. Yet we may be paying a high price for putting off decisions that should be made now.

Many cancers, including breast cancer, are still shrouded in medical mystery and are likely to remain so for many years. This has frustrated many women health activists because governments won’t commit themselves to appropriate environmental policies until the final scientific word is in. As one friend said, “Just how much longer are we going to wait –until a whole generation of cancer victims have died while under study?”

Another issue is that environmental health science is full of methodological problems. As the WHO’s 2007report on “Preventing Disease Through Health Environments” noted, we don’t have proper epidemiological tools to predict the impact of pollutants on our health. Many emerging risks, like intensive agricultural practices, long-term chemical exposures on cancers and electromagnetic exposures from new technologies, haven’t been adequately evaluated. Hormone-mimicking pesticides, PCBs or radiation often don’t show the full range of their damage to human health until several generations have passed. Also, to be very accurate, scientific research would have to produce much better data on women’s life styles as well as their exposures to environmental hazards from birth to death–a feat that is almost impossible when research funds are limited.

Hard science is often slow to point us in the right direction and vested interests –as in the case of the tobacco industry—sometimes intentionally muddy the waters to cloud the truth. Shouldn’t we use common sense as well as scientific research in public health policies? If canaries stop singing and frogs are born with abnormalities, I’m for playing it safe and using the precautionary principle.