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Carl Cranor

Distinguished Professor of Philosophy
Carl Cranor
Arresting Legal Poisoning
From before birth, we are exposed to hundreds–perhaps thousands–of chemicals and toxicants. The legal system currently permits the vast majority of these substances to be marketed before they are safety tested. Dr. Cranor draws from science, regulatory policy, his research and moral philosophy to justify and urge premarket product testing for our health.

Areas of Expertise

Areas of Expertise:
  • Legal and moral philosophy
  • Acceptable risk
  • Science and the law
  • Regulation of carcinogens and developmental toxicants
College: Affiliations:
  • Environmental Toxicology Graduate Program
  • Institute for Integrative Genome Biology
  • UCR Stem Cell Center
Books: Articles/Interviews: Profile:

Select Honors and Distinctions

  • UCR Honors Professor of the Year (2007–08)
  • Distinguished Campus Service Award (2007–08)
  • Elected Fellow, Collegium Ramazinni (2003)
  • Elected Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science (1998)
  • Congressional Fellow, American Philosophical Association (1985–86)
  • Fellow, American Council of Learned Societies (1980–81)

Research Summary

Legal and moral philosophy; philosophy of law and science; philosophy of risk assessment; public health protections for susceptible subpopulations

Q&A

Q: Describe your research.
My research is focused on philosophic issues of risk, science and the law. The law, which ought to protect the public health, provides an institutional framework for social action. Scientific research leads to productive technologies and also identifies the risks and harms that come from technology. Philosophical issues needing adjudication underlie the use of uncertain science in the law. If the law asks too much of science in order to certify that some risks exist and warrant reduction, action may come slowly and lead to neglecting other risks. But if too little science is required, the result may be overregulation of industrially produced chemicals and insufficient innovation. Philosophic research can help find the balance.

Q: Tell us more about how your research impacts public health.
My current research draws on new scientific research on the developmental basis of disease. Diseases and dysfunctions can be predisposed or triggered by toxicants in utero or after birth. We are all contaminated and quite permeable to industrial compounds, including developing children and pregnant women. Babies are born with up to 200 chemical contaminants, some toxic. Yet the laws that aim to protect us simply cannot do the job because the vast percentage of industrial chemicals enters commerce without any toxicity data. My recent book, Legally Poisoned: How the Law Puts Us at Risk from Toxicants, urges that the substantive science and risk assessments needed to protect our health should occur before we and our children are exposed, not afterward, which now turns citizens into haphazard guinea pigs.

Q: Since you are a philosopher, what other notable philosophic issues arise from your work?
The developmental basis of disease also raises significant additional issues of justice. Institutional responses to naturally occurring diseases (such as measles or polio) that "just happen to us" can be just or unjust. Inadequte or unequal institutional provisions for preventing such diseases, and unequal or inadequate treatment of those who contract them, are two kinds of injustices. However, when the law permits some citizens in the community to expose others to toxicants that trigger diseases, this is a more profound injustice that can and should be removed.

Q: What doesn’t the public know or understand about this kind of research?
Many people assume that most humanly created chemicals are tested for their toxicity before they enter commerce, but this is simply not true, except for pharmaceuticals and pesticides, a small percentage of the chemical universe. Thus, this research has presented the need for greater public health protections for women of child-bearing age, developing children and teenagers. This will necessitate changes in existing law, which some will see as interfering with their economic activities. Yet such legal changes are needed to protect the most vulnerable among us from harm. Moreover, economic studies from the European community, which has implemented such laws, suggests that the total costs (over eleven years) of legal changes are likely considerably less than the annual costs of disease and dysfunction from citizens’ exposures to toxicants during development.

Q: What does “Living the Promise” mean to you?
Universities hold the promise of increasing knowledge so that we can live better, safer and healthier lives. We need to convey this knowledge to the next generation so they carry on the current work. This idea certainly motivates the research and teaching that I have done.

Q: What is it about UCR that makes this a great place to do research, compared with other institutions?
Not long ago, UCR was a smaller, congenial campus in which intellectual and personal relationships could develop across departments and fields. Now it is a major university, but the spirit of collaboration across disciplines has continued. My own work has substantially benefited from research with scientists in biology and toxicology.

Q: In your spare time, what are you reading?
I read considerable history from the Greeks and Romans through the Middle Ages and Renaissance to the present. I also try to stay abreast of political thought concerning the role of the federal government in our lives, including how well or poorly federal environmental health agencies are protecting the public’s health.

Q: How do your students inspire you?
At least one book and a number of articles have resulted from teaching topics to undergraduate classes. Teaching classes and being asked to clarify material or explain it so that it is clear to undergraduates has played a major role in the development of my research.

Carl Cranor "We all have confidence that drugs provide health benefits for our maladies, and that their risks were assessed before sale. But current laws permit the vast majority of other chemicals to enter commerce without safety testing. This turns citizens haphazardly into guinea pigs, adding to injustice between citizens."

—Carl Cranor