Monday, July 13, 2009

Precaution and your 401K

It is estimated that there are over 80,000 potentially toxic chemicals bathing us in our daily lives, only 200 of which have been evaluated for safety by the government agencies. The debate over how these chemicals come to market goes something like this. Manufacturers argue that these chemicals have not been definitively proven to cause disease and, furthermore, restrictive regulations will drive them out of business with the commensurate loss of jobs, revenue and products. Environmental and safety advocates counter this by asking why should we wait for people to die from these exposures before we ask these questions and investigate their potential ill effects? The latter is called the "precautionary principle" in environmental science. The European Union has largely adopted this philosophy in the way they deal with marketing of new products. Once again, the US lags behind. Why? Economics! Is it cynical to ask, since we have the most financially robust healthcare enterprise in the world, why focus on prevention when our 401Ks will do so much better with funding thrown at finding the cure?

What is the right balance of precaution and economic interests and who suffers from the imbalance of the two in either direction?

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