PARIS, March 14 (AFP)
First, there was the beef infected with a brain-destroying agent. Then chicken, tainted with toxic dioxin. After that, "Frankenfood": the creepy-sounding saga of genetically-engineered crops.
Then came the cancer scares -- the overhead power lines and mobile phones rumoured to cause brain tumours, and the depleted uranium shells blamed for "Balkans Syndrome" among peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia.
It seems you can do nothing in Western Europe today without putting your life at risk.
But is all this anxiety real or neurotic?
Environmentalists and some health advocates say there are sound causes for worry, especially in food safety, where some modern farming practices have proved disastrous -- as shown by the latest outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.
The mad cow catastrophe, they note, erupted despite reassurances by British government scientists that bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was under control and presented no danger to health.
And many experts refuse to commit themselves on genetically-modified plants, arguing it is too soon to know whether they will be safe in the long term, these sources point out.
But, says Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health, a New York-based non-profit advisory body, Western Europe's health scares are now so pervasive they have reached "the point of paranoia."
They compare absurdly with "real health threats" that kill or maim tens of thousands of Europeans each year, she told AFP in a telephone interview.
"When I'm over in England, I see people who don't put helmets on when they're riding bikes, or they don't have seat belts on, they're smoking cigarettes and consuming huge amounts of alcohol and fatty foods -- and they're worried about portable phones. It's ridiculous."
New studies are re-examining the safety of depleted uranium shells, high-voltage cables and mobile phones. But even if this new research gives the all-clear, will the public believe it?
"People in Europe suffer a scientific credibility gap unseen in America," said Alan McHughen, a scientist at Canada's University of Saskatchewan and author of a book on the safety of genetically-modified foods.
"There will be no public confidence until the governments can prove (their claim that) they actually do have crises 'under control'," McHughen said.
Peter Marsh, a psychologist who is director of the Social Issues Research Council, an independent British thinktank, agrees.
"The idea that the man in the white coat says it's OK is no longer accepted by people as something that is necessarily going to reassure them, especially after BSE," he said in a phone interview.
"Perhaps that's not a bad thing, because it forces science to justify its role. But if dispassionate, rational scientific debate goes, all we're left with is quasi-religious mysticism, which seems to me to be extremely dangerous. It's like a return to the Dark Ages."
The recent roots of Europe's phobia may lie in Chernobyl, in April 1986. This disaster, and the link confirmed 10 years later between BSE and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease provided all the ingredients for mass anxiety.
Those two scares respectively touched on air and food, the most basic of human needs. And they involved radioactive dust and an infective protein agent, contaminants that are invisible and poorly understood by the general public and thus easy targets for scare-mongering.
But there may be deeper causes, some believe.
For Denis Duclos, a sociologist at France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), Western Europe is wallowing in a collective yearning for natural purity.
"A sort of mass neurosis seems to be gripping the public. It is based on the conviction that Man's relationship with Nature has become more and more debased," he wrote last December in Le Monde Diplomatique.
Marsh suggests Western Europeans are craving an instinctive thrill.
"Throughout our evolution, as fairly risk-taking animals, we've always needed that essential frisson of fear to keep us in business.
"We now live in societies and cultures which are the safest they've ever been, where the food doesn't kill you, where people don't die of scurvy and malnutrition -- so we are now having to inject some concerns, some fears and some worries back into our otherwise safe and therefore quite dull lives."
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