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Applying the Precautionary PrincipleTee L. Guidotti aa Archives of Environmental & Occupational HealthPublished online: 23 Apr 2012.
To cite this article: Tee L. Guidotti (2012) Applying the Precautionary Principle, Archives of Environmental & OccupationalHealth, 67:2, 63-64, DOI: 10.1080/19338244.2012.642708
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Archives of Environmental & Occupational Health, Vol. 67, No. 2, 2012Copyright C 2012 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
Applying the Precautionary Principle
The precautionary principle is the notion that if an activ-ity or innovation presents a risk of harm to the environmentor to human beings, conservative measures such as delay-ing or impeding the introduction of a new action or steps tomitigate damage should be taken, even if cause and effecthave not been firmly established and the risk cannot be fullycharacterized by scientific studies.1 It is a profoundly conser-vative policy, called by the translation of its German name,Vorsorgeprinzip, and articulated by the historic WingspreadConference.2
The implications of the precautionary principle are manybut primarily it seeks to shift the burden of proof away fromthose who question safety of a toxic chemical or environmen-tal intervention onto those who propose to use that chemicalor implement the action. It also tries to be a no regretspolicy, encouraging innovation and alternatives that are notassociated with risk and that prevent harm. The policy nowguides the environmental policies of the European Union andits member states.
Depending on ones perspective, this is either a responsi-ble way to protect the planet or a formula for stopping socialand technological progress. In either case, it hardly mattersin practice, because the precautionary principle is only reallyapplied to minor risks, not to the major, world-destabilizingrisks for which it was originally articulated. When the stakesare as high as climate change, it works in reverse, becausegovernments require irrefutable evidence in order to act onsuch a disruptive scale, by which time it is too late. Instead,the precautionary principle is typically applied to risks, suchas exposure to carcinogens and food safety, that are with-out question unacceptable to the individual but that do notthreaten civilization or the fabric of society.
Many environmentalists have internalized the precaution-ary principle as if it were a scientific principle, which it isnot. The precautionary principle, in practice, is too often in-terpreted to mean that in the presence of uncertainty, societyshould not permit any action at all that carries the risk ofadverse consequences. At the same time, most environmen-tal health professionals implicitly reject this interpretationbecause they work in the real world of inspections, citations,permits, and interventions.
However, the precautionary principle is applied wrongly.We use it too often for de minimis problems and not on themajor, society-destabilizing issues it was designed to address.We misuse the precautionary principle when we apply itto risks so low that they are not a practical worry and ignoreit for the type of risks for which it was originally intended:those that are collective, significant, and destabilizing.
The precautionary principle was originally developed bythe Brundtland Commission and expressed in its report,3
although the concept had been discussed for years in envi-ronmental circles. It was initially applied to situation wherethe risk was unknown but the potential consequences ex-tremely grave. That description hardly applies to short-termexposure to chemical residues that may or may not raise in-dividual cancer risks to a degree that cannot be measuredepidemiologically. It hardly applies for populations in whichthe event might not ever happen because a single person atrisk is hundreds of times more likely to die first of othercauses.
The precautionary principle may be thought to apply mostclearly when the consequences of a failure to act are so greatthat it may destabilize society or the ecosystem and leadto unacceptable permanent consequences. It does not obvi-ously apply to limited consequences that fall on the few or tohighly unlikely outcomes or to risks that people assume forthemselves, with knowledge. Equally important is whetherthere is a balance of risks and whether the adverse outcomeis likely to be so great or widespread as to cause a socialburden. We apply to chemical carcinogens, where the risk isso low it cannot be detected in human populations, but wefail to apply the principle it to threats so serious that they candestabilize our entire society, such as climate change.
An example of the appropriate use of the precautionaryprinciple on a matter of individual risk was the 1997 Commis-sion of Inquiry on the Blood System of Canada, the so-calledKrever Commission, which investigated a lapse in screeningfor human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in blood prod-ucts in Canada and led to major improvements in the sys-tem. The Commission applied the precautionary principlebased on reasonable evidence of significant adverse healtheffects that outweighed any uncertainties left in the data. The
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Commission developed its framework to address the risk ofinfection from a contaminated blood supply (contaminatedwith HIV), the result of which was both an individual tragedyand a social catastrophe, because it compromised the nationalblood distribution system.
Applying the precautionary principle without discretioncarries a real risk of fatiguing the public and compromisingeffective regulatory action on toxic substances. The publicdoes not necessarily consider it a priority to understand theissue and to carefully weigh a decision to eat meat and fish.People make thousands of decisions in a day and cannotafford to spend time on a rational analysis of each, especiallywhen the stakes are so low in absolute terms. Daily decisionsregarding driving a car, handling firearms, and making aliving carry a much greater risk than, for example, whetherto consume a portion of fish or game meat that carries a riskof contamination or the distant risk of cancer from a low levelof environmental exposure.
Except in the European Union, the precautionary principleshould not be confused with something that society actuallydoes. The precautionary principle is a powerful and importantfoundation of environmental policy but it is not absolute andit should be used sparingly and where the circumstancesrequire it.
Tee L. GuidottiEditor-in-Chief
Archives of Environmental & Occupational Health
1. Kriebel D, Tickner J, Epstein P, Lemons J, et al. The precau-tionary principle in environmental science. Environ Health Perspect.2001;109:871876.
2. Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle. Promulgatedat the Wingspread Conference Center; 25 January 1998; Racine,Wisconsin. Available at: http://www.gdrc.org/u-gov/precaution-3.html.Last accessed January 30, 2010.
3. World Commission on Environment and Development. Our CommonFuture. London: Oxford University Press; 1987.
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