The Colours and Shapes of Harm: The Treats and Toys that we ought to Keep Away from Our Children

by Dr. Nileema Conlon Vaswani in


It is somewhat understandable if children in the UK are feeling confused and slightly upset this week. Not only might their favourite toys have been made by Mattel and withdrawn for fears of containing high levels of lead but they might also no longer be given their favourite sweets for fear of these sweets containing certain additives that could lead to bad behaviour. And if they enjoyed salty foods, once again, their parents have been warned of excess salt intake that has revealed high blood pressure in toddlers.

So what ought we to do so as to maximise the health of our children? The move to withdraw toys is appropriate and alerts the UK and other countries to the dangers of lead levels in toys. In India, for example, it has emerged that although a number of toys there that are made in China have been recalled by Mattel, toys made in India might also contain dangerous levels of lead. What is important is that lead poisoning via toys is accepted as possible and real, not least because many children put the toys in the mouths and, for this reason, is an issue that is being addressed.

If the health of a child is at stake, as in the case of possible lead poisoning, it is important to do everything we can to eliminate or at least minimise the cause of harm to the child. It is surprising, therefore, that the same level of concern is not being applied to the effects of food additives on children.

A recent study conducted by researchers in the UK has shown that food additives such as sunset yellow, tartazine, etc. are to blame for hyperactivity, including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), in children. These and other E-numbers are found in many cakes, sweets and soft drinks. Yet, there is reluctance to have these additives banned. This reluctance is based on the supposed need for further evidence, the idea that certain children might be more sensitive to additives, and so on. As a consequence of the study, parents have been warned to avoid giving their children foods and drinks that contain the additives if they notice that their children's behaviour is being affected by it. At best, this approach seems too soft; more realistically, it seems morally lazy.

While we ought to be reluctant to withdraw a product that is potentially beneficial, even if we are unsure of how beneficial it is to the consumer, it seems odd to apply the same standard to products that are established to be harmful. Perhaps the debate that remains unfinished is how harmful the additives are but nowhere in this controversy is anyone waiting to establish evidence that suggests that the additives are actually good for children. To allow them to be used in products and rely solely on manufacturer's goodwill to stop using them in products is wrong.

Consider a parallel example. If a drug were being tested as a cure for a serious childhood disease, it would not be approved until the authorities were as certain as they could be that it were safe for use. Not only would its effectiveness be tested but also its safety, i.e., the likelihood of its bringing about unwanted side effects. Most of us would agree that to introduce the drug into the market without appropriate clinical trials would be irresponsible even if the drug had the potential to cure a serious illness. If this potential for good is not sufficient moral justification for giving the drug to children who suffered from that disease, then how can we justify allowing children to consume products that are likely to harm them?

There are various reasons for children's behavioural problems and it would be less than responsible to suggest that food additives were solely to blame. Still, if there is a strong link between additives and problematic behaviour, we have a duty to eliminate or minimise these additives.

Consider for a moment that this research had been conducted at the very outset, i.e., before the products had been put on supermarket shelves for public consumption. If the purpose of the research had been to determine whether the products that contained the additives were safe for public consumption, including child consumption, it is unlikely that they would have met approval. And if we had approved products that we believed were unsafe, we would be morally culpable. So what is the moral difference between introducing a product we suspect is unsafe and withdrawing the same product when we suspect that it is unsafe? Does the introducing, i.e., the act of doing, confer greater moral responsibility than does withdrawing, i.e., the act of stopping, or do both leave the doer equally morally culpable? While it may appear that the act of doing leaves one with greater morally culpability than the act of not doing, the intention behind both actions is the same. In the current context, giving children food additives is just as bad as not stopping them from eating them or, in the larger context, for the State to introduce products with these food additives would make them just as morally culpable as not withdrawing them.

There are circumstances where the moral difference between doing and failing to do might hold. This difference is, however, contingent on the role we play in society. For example, in light of this study, if I chose to give a child sweets that contain these additives, I would be responsible for my actions. But the same level of responsibility would not hold if I saw a child eating these sweets and decided not to take them away. The reason for this moral difference is that it is not my place to regulate what children eat although in making a choice as to what to give a child, I ought to choose responsibly. The State, however, has a stronger moral responsibility to protect its citizens and, for this reason, it ought to insist that food additives that are likely to cause behavioural problems in children be withdrawn. Where decisions of the State are concerned, there is no moral difference between performing an action and failing to stop the same action because the intentions behind these decisions are the same.