The Precautionary Principle - March 1998
By Carolyn Raffensperger
Article I. The Precautionary
Principle: A Fact Sheet
Prepared by the Science and Environmental Health Network
What is the precautionary principle?
A comprehensive definition of the precautionary principle was spelled out in a
January 1998 meeting of scientists, lawyers, policy makers and environmentalists
at Wingspread, headquarters of the Johnson Foundation in Racine, Wisconsin.
The Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, summarizes the principle this way:
"When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health,
precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."
Key elements of the principle include taking precaution in the face of scientific
uncertainty; exploring alternatives to possibly harmful actions; placing the burden
of proof on proponents of an activity rather than on victims or potential victims of
the activity; and using democratic processes to carry out and enforce the principle - including the public right to informed consent.
Is there some special meaning for "precaution"?
It's the common sense idea behind many adages: "Be careful." "Better safe than
sorry." "Look before you leap." "First do no harm."
What about "scientific uncertainty"? Why should we take action before science
tells us what is harmful or what is causing harm?
Sometimes if we wait for proof it is too late. Scientific standards for demonstrating
cause and effect are very high. For example, smoking was strongly suspected of causing lung cancer long before the link was demonstrated conclusively - that is,
to the satisfaction of scientific standards of cause and effect. By then, many smokers had died of lung cancer. But many other people had already quit
smoking because of the growing evidence that smoking was linked to lung cancer. These people were wisely exercising precaution despite some scientific
Often a problem - such as a cluster of cancer cases or global warming - is too
large, its causes too diverse, or the effects too long term to be sorted out with
scientific experiments that would prove cause and effect. It's hard to take these
problems into the laboratory. Instead, we have to rely on observations, case studies or predictions based on current knowledge.
According to the precautionary principle, when substantial scientific evidence of
any kind gives us good reason to believe that an activity, technology or substance
may be harmful, we should act to prevent harm. If we always wait for scientific certainty, people may suffer and die, and damage to the natural world may be
We have lots of environmental regulations. Aren't we already exercising
In some cases, to some extent, yes. When federal money is to be used in a major
project, such as building a road on forested land or developing federal waste programs, the planners must produce an "environmental impact
statement" to show how it will affect the surroundings. Then the public has a right to help
determine whether the study has been thorough and all the alternatives considered. That is a precautionary action.
But most environmental regulations, such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water
Act and the Superfund Law, are aimed at cleaning up pollution and controlling the
amount of it released into the environment. They regulate toxic substances as they are emitted rather than limiting their use or production in the first place.
These laws have served an important purpose - they have given us cleaner air,
water and land. But they are based on the assumption that humans and ecosystems can absorb a certain amount of contamination without being harmed.
We are now learning how difficult it is to know what levels of contamination, if
any, are safe.
Many of our food and drug laws and practices are more precautionary. Before a
drug is introduced into the marketplace, the manufacturer must demonstrate that it is safe and effective. Then people must be told about risks and side effects
before they use it.
But there are some major loopholes in our regulations. If the precautionary
principle were universally applied, many toxic substances, contaminants, and unsafe practices would not be produced or used in the first place. The
precautionary principle concentrates on prevention rather than cure.
How would the precautionary principle change that without bringing the economy
to a halt?
It would encourage the exploration of alternatives - better, safer, cheaper ways to
do things- and the development of "cleaner" products and technologies. Sometimes simply slowing down in order to learn more about potential harm is
the best alternative.
It would shift the burden of proof from the public to proponents of a technology.
The principle would ensure that the public knows about and has a say in the deployment of technologies that may be hazardous. Proponents would have to
demonstrate through an open process that a technology was safe or necessary and that no better alternatives were available.
Is the Precautionary Principle a new idea?
The precautionary principle was introduced in Europe in the 1980s and became
the basis for the 1987 treaty that bans dumping of toxic substances in the North
Sea. It figures in the Convention on Biodiversity. A growing number of Swedish and German environmental laws are based on the precautionary principle.
Interpretations of the principle vary, but the Wingspread Statement is the first to
define its major components and explain the rationale behind it.
Will the countries that adopt the precautionary principle become less competitive
on the world marketplace?
The idea is to progress more carefully than we have done before. Some
technologies may be brought onto the marketplace more slowly. Others may be
stopped or phased out. On the other hand, there will be many incentives to create
new technologies that will make it unnecessary to produce and use harmful substances and processes. These new technologies will bring economic benefits
in the long run. Countries on the forefront of stronger environmental laws, such
as Germany and Sweden, have developed new, cleaner technologies despite temporary higher costs. They are now able to export these technologies. Other
countries risk being left behind, with outdated facilities and
How can we possibly prevent all bad side effects from technological progress?
Hazards are a part of life. But it is important for people to press for less harmful
alternatives, to exercise their rights to a clean, life-sustaining environment and,
when they could be exposed to hazards, to know what those hazards are and to have a part in deciding whether to accept them.
How will the precautionary principle be implemented?
The precautionary principle should become the basis for reforming environmental laws and regulations and for creating new regulations. It is essentially an approach, a way of thinking. In coming years, precaution should be exercised, argued and promoted on many levels - in regulations, industrial practices, science, consumer choices, education, communities, and schools.
The release and use of toxic substances,
the exploitation of resources, and physical alterations of the environment have
had substantial unintended consequences affecting human health and the
environment. Some of these concerns are high rates of learning deficiencies,
asthma, cancer, birth defects and species extinctions; along with global climate
change, stratospheric ozone depletion and worldwide contamination with toxic
substances and nuclear materials.
We believe existing environmental
regulations and other decisions, particularly those based on risk assessment,
have failed to protect adequately human health and the environment - the larger
system of which humans are but a part.
We believe there is compelling evidence
that damage to humans and the worldwide environment is of such magnitude and
seriousness that new principles for conducting human activities are necessary.
While we realize that human activities
may involve hazards, people must proceed more carefully than has been the case
in recent history. Corporations, government entities, organizations,
communities, scientists and other individuals must adopt a precautionary
approach to all human endeavors.
Therefore, it is necessary to implement
the Precautionary Principle: When an activity raises threats of harm to human
health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some
cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.
In this context the proponent of an
activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.
The process of applying the Precautionary
Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially
affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of
alternatives, including no action.
Dr. Nicholas Ashford
Univ. of British Columbia
Chicago-Kent College of Law
Dr. Robert Costanza
Univ. of Maryland
Dr. Carl Cranor
Univ. of California, Riverside
Dr. Peter deFur
Virginia Commonwealth Univ.
Dr. Kenneth Geiser
Toxics Use Reduction Inst., Univ. of Mass., Lowell
Dr. Andrew Jordan
Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment, Univ. Of East Anglia
United Steelworkers of America, Canadian Office
Dr. Frederick Kirschenmann
Center for Health, Environment and Justice
Dr. Michael M'Gonigle
Univ. of Victoria, British Columbia
Dr. Peter Montague
Environmental Research Foundation
Dr. John Peterson Myers
W. Alton Jones Foundation
Dr. Mary O'Brien
Dr. David Ozonoff
Science and Environmental Health Network
Dr. Philip Regal
Univ. of Minnesota
Hon. Pamela Resor
Massachusetts House of Representatives
Louisiana Environmental Network
Dr. Ted Schettler
Physicians for Social Responsibility
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition
Dr. Klaus-Richard Sperling
Alfred-Wegener- Institut, Hamburg
Dr. Sandra Steingraber
Environmental Health Coalition
Univ. of Mass., Lowell
Dr. Konrad von Moltke
Dr. Bo Wahlstrom
KEMI (National Chemical Inspectorate), Sweden
Indigenous Environmental Network
Affiliations are noted
for identification purposes only.
By Joel Tickner
The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF)
recently published a report entitled Toxic Ignorance, which follows a 1984
National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report that showed that we know little about
the health effects of industrial chemicals. The EDF report found that 71% of
some 3,000 high production/high priority chemicals lack even minimal screening
data, the most basic of toxicological data. 52% of those chemicals on the Toxics
Release Inventory, supposedly those most studied, lack basic data. For those
chemicals identified as high exposure, 57% lack adequate data. Even less is
known about chemicals that are of lower production or aren't of regulatory
The authors conclude that uncertainty and
ignorance about toxic chemicals and their effect has not improved since the NAS
study yet government and industry continue to make decisions based on inadequate
information that impact public and environmental health.
Many people would say the appropriate
response to this lack of information is more testing and risk assessment.
However, risk assessment cannot solve the problem of a lack of fundamental
information about mechanisms of action or variability in exposure. Chemical by
chemical risk assessment is costly and takes too long.
Risk Assessment was developed for
well-defined, easily analyzed problems such as bridge construction. For complex
environmental problems, risk assessment requires a wide variety of assumptions
about hazard, exposure, dose-response, etc. Even single parameters such as human
breathing rates can vary widely. The National Academy of Sciences has
estimated that at least 50 assumptions are needed for the average risk
assessment. As a result, a single, simple risk assessment conducted by different
scientists can vary widely in results.
The limitations of science to answer
questions about cause-effect provide a clear rational for the precautionary
principle. We have great uncertainties about the effects of toxic chemicals on
humans, some of which can be reduced, some not. We have to be clear that what we
do in the face of scientific uncertainty is a policy decision, not a scientific
one: not acting is a decision.
The precautionary principle says
"act based on suspicion rather than proof." It demands that we look to
see if there is a safer way of doing things. Rather than "how much is
safe", which we can never know with any certainty, it asks "how much
contamination can be avoided? What are the alternatives to this product or
activity? The precautionary principle focuses on options, not risk, which shifts
the nature of the problem to be solved. It forces the initiator of an activity
to address fundamental questions of how it can behave in a more environmentally
sensitive manner. When looking at options, risk assessment is relegated to a
second tier, used for comparing options.
The Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction
Act (TURA) is a salient example of the principle of precautionary action. Passed
in 1989, the Act requires that manufacturing firms using specific quantities of
some 900 industrial chemicals undergo a bi-yearly process to identify
alternatives to reduce use of those chemicals. There are several aspects of
Toxics Use Reduction that make it a good example of precautionary action.
First, the Commonwealth established a
goal of a 50% reduction of toxic by-product (waste) through toxics use reduction
Second, the Act does not instruct
industrial facilities to identify the "safe" level of use, emissions
or exposure to chemicals. Rather, the act instructs firms to identify ways to
reduce their waste and, subsequently, use of those chemicals - any amount of use
is considered too much.
Third, the act instructs companies to go
through an alternatives assessment process whereby they understand why they use
a specific chemical (what "service" it provides); how it is used in
the production process. They conduct a comprehensive financial, technical,
environmental, and occupational health and safety analysis of viable
alternatives. The firm is not required to undertake any particular option but in
many cases the economic and environmental/health and safety benefits provide
enough justification for action (waste is a sign of inefficiency in a production
process and there are very high costs associated with chemical purchases,
tracking, and waste disposal).
Lastly, companies are required to measure
their progress yearly at reducing their use of toxic chemicals. This information
is publicly available.
While the burden of proof is on the firm
to identify alternatives and analyze their chemical impacts, Massachusetts
provides support to ensure that progress is made reducing toxic chemical use.
Last year, TURI conducted an analysis of
the Act. From 1990-1995 companies in Massachusetts reduced their toxic chemical
emissions by more than two-thirds, their total chemical waste by 30% and their
total use by 20%. On the cost side, the Act saved Massachusetts' industry some
15 million dollars. This figure does not include the public health and
environmental benefits gained through the program.
Toxics use reduction provides an example
of how the precautionary principle can be applied to industrial chemicals. The
process involves understanding what you are trying to do, how you are doing it,
measuring impacts and progress, and systematically searching for and analyzing
alternatives on a regular basis. This process can be applied to most human
activities that impact public health or ecosystems.
Massachusetts now has an opportunity to
expand on the Act by passing precautionary principle legislation introduced by
the Hon. Pamela Resor. This legislation was brought before the
Natural Resources Committee in last year's session. It is currently being
redrafted to reflect the Wingspread conference on the precautionary principle.
In the end, if we are to move forward
with the precautionary principle, more types of legislation like that passed in
1989 and now introduced in Massachusetts will be needed.
(This article is based on testimony
provided before the Natural Resources Committee of the MA House of
Representatives in Nov., 1997)
By Dr. Frederick Kirschenmann
Since its inception, organic agriculture
has been a farming system that has, in principle, adhered to the precept of
precaution. It is a system of farming that uses nature's own ecosystem services
to produce food and fiber for human consumption. Instead of using exogenous
inputs, it uses nature's own cycles and organisms to achieve production goals.
Instead of using manufactured soluble nitrogen, for example, it uses leguminous
plants whereby bacteria "fix" atmospheric nitrogen in the soil.
This approach to agriculture means that
organic farmers have been alert to the fact that they need to protect, from
harm, the natural systems on which their production practices depend. Hence the
About a decade ago the organic community
with consumer and environmental groups, lobbied the U.S. Congress to pass
federal legislation to regulate organic production and handling. That request
was market driven. Since organic food had become popular unscrupulous
entrepreneurs had started to label foods as organically produced when they had
not been produced or manufactured in accordance with organic principles.
As a result the Organic Foods Production
Act was enshrined in the 1990 Farm Bill and USDA was instructed to craft the
rule to implement the legislation. The proposed rule was published in the
Federal Register December 16, 1998.
The proposed rule generally follows a
risk assessment approach to regulation. The philosophy of risk assessment
allows a potentially harmful practice to continue unless or until cause/effect
data substantiates that the practice in question causes a level of harm that can
not be justified in relationship to the benefits of the practice.
While much of the rule proposes sound
organic principles, it allows for practices and materials to be used in organic
production and handling that have previously not been allowed by most private
certification systems. The rule allows such previously prohibited practices
PROVIDED THAT certain kinds of environmental degradation do not occur. This is
where the risk assessment, rather than the precautionary principle, drives the
The rule would, for example, allow
certain soil amendments to be used so long as no "measurable
degradation" to soil quality could be established. This means that while
organic agriculture has traditionally said "no" to any materials that
were inconsistent with a natural farming system as a precaution against harmful
affects, the rule would ALLOW suspect practices so long as measurable
degradation could not be established.
A good example of how this would play
itself out in the organic world can be seen in an example that the rule provides
in its Preamble.
For example, if nitrate levels in an
adjacent well are found to increase over two or more crop years following
application of a highly soluble mined source of nitrogen to soil...then the
practice would have to be terminated or modified to prevent further adverse
effects on water nitrate levels. (205.2)
This is clearly a risk assessment
approach. It would allow the use of a material (highly soluble nitrogen), which
had previously been prohibited in principle, until it could be demonstrated by
cause/effect scientific measurement that degradation had occurred. Rather than
taking precautionary steps to prevent the degradation from occurring, this rule
requires that the practice be stopped after the degradation has occurred.
Such a risk assessment approach not only
runs a greater risk of doing harm to the environment, it also runs the risk of
destabilizing the organic agriculture system. Organic farmers depend on the
health of natural ecosystem services to achieve their production goals. Allowing
the use of exogenous inputs in place of practices that encourage more robust
ecosystem services could result in the degradation of those very services, and
therefore impair the productivity of organic farming. Numerous ecologists have
demonstrated how the health of natural ecosystems and agricultural productivity
are intimately connected. (See, for example, Y. Baskin, The Work of Nature,
1997, and S. Buchmann & G. Nabhan, The Forgotten Pollinators, 1996)
The organic rule provides a perfect
opportunity for federal regulatory agencies to apply the precautionary
principle. Since organic agriculture has traditionally used the principle of
precaution in practice, applying the precautionary principal to the regulatory
scheme should be a perfect fit. And once a regulatory scheme has been
developed for organic agriculture, using the precautionary principle, it might
become more feasible to apply it to other, appropriate regulatory initiatives.
There is some indication that the
industry is interested in applying the precautionary principle to the organic
regulation. At its annual conference on February 9, 1998, the Northern Plains
Sustainable Agriculture Society proposed, as one of their six priorities
concerning the rule, that the precautionary principle should guide the final
By Jeff Howard
The core of the recent Wingspread
statement on precaution is contained in its two final paragraphs, which define
the Precautionary Principle and describe its application. In these paragraphs,
we find three explicit tenets of precaution (presented here in slightly altered
- 1. When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the
environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause
and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.
- 2. The proponent of a technological activity, rather than the public, bears
the burden of proof.
- 3. Precaution must be an open, democratic process involving all affected
parties and examination of the full range of social and technological
A number of precaution
advocates have warned against allowing the Principle to become captive to non-precautionary thinking and policies.
Barrett and Raffensperger
(1998), for example, caution that non-precautionary policies may come to be
disguised behind a "precautionary gloss." I submit that to reduce this
risk the Precautionary Principle must embody at least five additional tenets,
which I will briefly sketch.
First, it is important to acknowledge that in environmental affairs,
cause-and-effect relationships that are "fully established"
scientifically are the exception rather than the rule. And as I point out
elsewhere (Howard 1997a, 1997b), fully establishing such relationships almost
always means waiting so long as to effectively preclude precautionary action.
Moreover, it is important to acknowledge that "threats of harm to human
health or the environment" do not stem merely from discrete activities. If
we are to effectively address rampant environmental degradation, it is crucial
that we address not just its proximate but its root causes, not just individual
technological activities but systems of technological activity. If precaution
is to address systemic stresses and impacts, we must exercise precaution
systematically. This leads us to the fourth and fifth tenets:
- 4. Precaution must become the default mode of all technological decision
making. One of our priorities must be stemming the tide of
ongoing environmental impacts driven by non-precautionary decision making
in the past:
- 5. A
precautionary policy regarding future impacts demands that even the most
fundamental of past technological decisions be subject to reexamination
The final three tenets
(6-8) I will illustrate by reference to one of the most well-known proposals for
precaution, a proposed ban on most uses of chlorine as an industrial feedstock.
Chlorine-ban proposals, advocated by the International Joint Commission,
Greenpeace, the American Public Health Association, and numerous grassroots
organizations, are based in part on the insight that chemical decision making
cannot rationally or sustainably proceed on a chemical by-chemical basis:
So many discrete synthetic substances are
in play (in air, water, soil and the tissues of the human and nonhuman biota)
that it is irrational for scientific and bureaucratic evaluation to focus
primarily on individual chemicals. The alternative framework requires a shift in
the unit of analysis -- investigation and regulation of entire chemical classes,
in this case the chlorinated substances. The crucial issue here is recognizing
and accepting responsibility for the linkage between the scale of assault on the
environment and the scale of decision making:
- 6. Precaution requires that the primary mode of regulation and regulatory
science be shifted to the macro scale.
Closely related is the
issue of how much additional scientific information we must acquire in order to
undertake rational, systematic, macro-scale precautionary regulation. The
crucial issue is whether the scientific data we need is yet to be generated,
written up, peer reviewed, and published -or is already sitting on the library
shelf. Proposals for a chlorine ban assert that, although we lack detailed
knowledge of the specific behaviors and impacts of most individual chlorinated
substances, we know enough about the general characteristics and environmental
behaviors of chlorinated chemicals to warrant sweeping action against the entire
class. The underlying assertion is that if scientific data at one scale (e.g.,
individual chemical congeners) are insufficient to allow informed
precautionary action, we are obligated to employ data available at a larger
scale (e.g., chemical classes). Hence:
- 7. In
precautionary assessment of environmental impacts, knowledge of broad
patterns trumps ignorance of detail.
Even with a commitment
to macro-scale regulation based on our knowledge of broad patterns of
environmental impacts, the regulatory agenda would too often be shifted out of
its default mode -- precaution -- unless we simultaneously undertake another
kind of pattern-making as well. It is essential for society to formulate and
adhere to broad (and admittedly socially constructed) ecological principles, in
the form of "principles of society-in-nature." Proposals for a
chlorine ban are based, in part, on such a principle:
Nature does not circulate large quantities of organochlorine substances in the
global ecosphere, so human society, which is embedded in Nature,
ought not do so. In a more general form:
8. Precaution demands that human society identify, and accommodate itself to,
broad patterns in ecological processes.
Principle has proven attractive because it points out, and promises to correct,
some of the fundamental flaws in society's conception of rational technological
development. To reduce the Principle's vulnerability to half measures and
semantic abuses -- non-precautionary policies disguised beneath a
"precautionary gloss" -- we must formulate the Principle in a way that
deepens and extends its critique and the alternative path it envisions. I
propose these additional tenets (4-8) as essential components of a more thorough
critique and a more comprehensive vision of what it means for environmental
policy to be precautionary.
Barrett, Katherine, and Carolyn
Raffensperger. 1998. "Precautionary science." Paper prepared for
Wingspread Conference on Implementing the Precautionary Principle, Racine,
Wisconsin. January 23-25.
"Endocrine-disrupting pollutants, sustainability, and the limits and
politics of environmental health science." Paper presented at annual
meeting of Society for Social Studies of Science, Tucson, October 23-26.
pollution, human health, and sustainability: Confronting the limits and politics
of scientific expertise." Master's thesis, Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute, Department of Science and Technology Studies, Troy, NY.
Jeff Howard, M.S.
Fort Worth, TX
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