The limits of science

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 April, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 April, 2001, 12:00am

The tragic story of the suffering endured by 21-year-old Lo Ming (Sunday Review, Page 1), is cautionary as well as deeply moving. Mr Lo's fight against cancer and the death of his mother while he received hospital treatment would be enough to crush the spirit of many young people. But, somehow - partly through the inspiring advice of his mother not to waste life - Mr Lo has found the strength to attempt to rebuild his shattered life.

However, Mr Lo refuses to blame his condition on the radioactive waste that sits beneath the Wan Chai school he attended. He reasons that if the waste is to blame, all teachers and pupils in the school would also have cancer. This logic is less than reassuring.

It is hardly surprising that parents with children at Wah Yan College are alarmed that five pupils have developed cancer since 1996; and it is not entirely surprising that many are not convinced by scientists and medical experts who say the cancers are not linked to the proximity of the radioactive waste.

A decade or more ago, perhaps people would have had more trust in what experts said. Nowadays, they are less likely to be so unquestioning. As the principal of Wah Yan College says: 'Science has limits.'

It is certainly right - as most people involved in this case agree - that the issue is not simply about science. It is also about psychology and the issue of where such waste should be stored. No one can argue that beneath a school is the right place.

The stress created within the minds of parents who know that radioactive substances are beneath the school in which their children spend large parts of the day is unlikely ever to be completely assuaged by the assurances of experts that it presents no harm. How many parents - whether convinced of the scientific arguments or not - would genuinely be unconcerned enough to choose to send their children to this school? What is arguable and rational on paper does not always convince the emotions.

Whatever the science involved, the Government should now regard this problem from a different perspective: that of the parents and students. The problem of the radioactive waste has now been debated for 10 years. This is far too long. The parents and pupils deserve to be free of uncertainty and the fear that there is a possibility that pupils are endangered. Whatever the cost of removal, it is time the Government acted, and also accepted that beneath a school is never the place to store radioactive materials.