Dr. Colin Soskolne
Searching for Solutions to Taiwan’s Industrial Pollution
Dr. Colin Soskolne, renowned international epidemiology authority and a strong advocate of public policy formulation on contagious diseases based on solid scientific data, recently toured the contaminated Mailiao region during a visit to Taiwan. He then compiled his recommendations for addressing industrial pollution and policy formulation.
Searching for Solutions to Taiwan’s Industrial PollutionBy Pei-hua Yu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 595 )
"I personally experienced an unpleasant smell, a polluted sky with poor visibility, and respiratory irritation. I understand that this is a common experience among visitors; of course, this is the lived experience for local citizens." These are words contained in a report by epidemiologist Dr. Colin Soskolne, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alberta (Canada) and chair of the International Joint Policy Committee of the Societies of Epidemiology (IJPC-SE), following a visit to Mailiao in Yunlin County on a lecture tour under the theme of "Human Health and Ecological Integrity."
For over three decades, Soskolne, now 69, has dedicated himself to environment and occupational health research, establishing himself as a pioneer and advocate in international epidemiological discussions. In late March, he presented a series of seven lectures in Taiwan at the invitation of the Taiwan Ecological Stewardship Association (TESA), and visited the contaminated area of Mailiao.
Attendees at the lectures included such heavyweights as ROC vice president-elect and former vice president of Academia Sinica, Dr. Chen Chien-jen, vice president of Taipei Medical University, Dr. Hung-yi Chiou, and dean of the College of Public Health at National Taiwan University (NTU), Dr. Wei J. Chen.
Policy Recommendations for VP-elect
The Formosa Plastics Group's Sixth Naphtha Cracker Plant, operating in Yunlin County for over 20 years, has become representative of environmental stewardship challenges in Taiwan as a result of controversies over the health risks from air pollution and public safety. During his visit, Dr. Soskolne visited villages near the Sixth Naphtha Cracker facility. Accompanied by members of the Taiwan Ecological Stewardship Association, he met with local residents, physicians, and NGO representatives. He then compiled a comprehensive policy recommendation report based on his findings and observations.
In his four-page report, addressed to nine Taiwanese scholars via email and made public on his personal website, Dr. Soskolne notes that public health controversies similar to those precipitating from the Sixth Naphtha Cracker facility are common in North America. He urged Taiwan's government to establish a comprehensive disease screening system, take administrative and legislative measures to enhance the transparency of information, and forge a win-win-win situation for residents, business, and government alike.
Immediately responding to the letter, Chen Chien-jen told Dr. Soskolne that his suggestions would help inform the formulation of pollution control policy, and that he would discuss the points raised in the report with the incoming Environmental Protection Administration chief and local officials in search of solutions.
Chang-chuan Chan, Associate Dean at the NTU College of Public Health, has had a long-term interest in pollution concerns connected to the Sixth Naptha Cracker. He points out that whilst the seven public policy recommendations Dr. Soskolne proposed have all been made before, many of them have not been implemented in Taiwan to date. Dr. Soskolne's report could serve to prompt the government and business sectors to take local citizens' health risks seriously.
Confronting Corporate Distortion with Science
The International Joint Policy Committee of the Societies of Epidemiology (IJPC-SE) Dr. Soskolne heads is a consortium of 20 international and national-level epidemiological groups from six continents. Registered as a non-profit organization in the United States, IJPC-SE is dedicated to ethical, independent and transparent scientific research for the promotion of human health.
Why does the organization stress "ethical, independent, and transparent" research? Dr. Soskolne explains that epidemiological knowledge provides data to governments to form the basis of policy formulation, which can often make related analysis and interpretation fraught with controversy. In cases where inappropriate policies are developed, more often than not funding from special interest groups is involved; or policy initiatives beneficial to the public good are delayed due to the impact of misleading reports.
Prominent cases include tobacco companies funding research firms to issue information via the media, muddying the waters with the implication that "controversy remains regarding the science on the detrimental effects of smoking," and research funded by oil companies refuting claims on climate change.
If you were to ask epidemiology students and researchers the question, "Is science impartial?" Soskolne says, 30 years ago everybody would have answered, "Yes." However, with awareness growing of special interest groups funding scientists to distort experimental outcomes, skepticism is growing, leading many to answer that question, "No." Consequently, Dr. Soskolne puts his faith in the value of rational policy formulation advocated and supported by scientific data.
Soskolne relates that corporations and other related interest groups often adopt the "4D's" tactic – namely Deny, Delay, Divide, and Discredit – in the face of scientific research indicating the deliterious effects of pollution on health, in the attempt to stymie governments from formulating new policies.
First, citing insufficient evidence, corporations request scientists to conduct more research to prove that the status quo is harmful. However, this is often an unnecessary delay tactic, which allows situations harmful to health to continue unabated. Further, special interests look for scientists who can be "bought" to come up with falsified data to support the company line. At the same time, they use other defamatory methods to try and erode the credibility of scientists presenting reports that do not favor the status quo.
In the case of the Sixth Naphtha Cracker facility and high-tech industrial pollution, Wen-ling Tu, Associate Professor at National Chengchi University's Department of Public Administration, believes that Taiwan's government and industry invariably demand flawless scientific data, while at the same time overlooking limitations of scope and timing on scientific research, and delaying the adoption of measures to protect the public against health risks.
Pollution risks were discovered in the Silicon Valley high tech industry as early as the 1980s, yet up until around 2000, the high tech industry was universally considered "clean" in Taiwan. Residents impacted by high tech industry pollution often come up against businesses that are reluctant to share which chemical substances are used in the production process out of fear of revealing trade secrets. This results in information asymmetry, which hinders research and further policy formulation.
In his conclusion, Dr. Soskolne's recommendation for policymakers is, "If research data from abroad has shown that a form of pollution is harmful to human health, there is no need to conduct more investigation in Taiwan or other places implementing policy as further proof. Where health risks are concerned swift action is needed to protect endangered groups." "You can't delay in order to wait for the information to be perfect," he adds. "Information can never be perfect, and you'll never have a policy to protect people."
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman