|Science & Environmental Health Network|
Science, Ethics and Action in the Public Interest
Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle|
January 26, 1998
Last weekend at an historic gathering at Wingspread, headquarters of the Johnson Foundation, scientists, philosophers, lawyers and environmental activists, reached agreement on the necessity of the Precautionary Principle in public health and environmental decision-making. The key element of the principle is that it incites us to take anticipatory action in the absence of scientific certainty.
At the conclusion of the three-day conference, the diverse group issued a statement calling for government, corporations, communities and scientists to implement the "precautionary principle" in making decisions.
The 32 conference participants included treaty negotiators, activists, scholars and scientists from the United States, Canada and Europe. The conference was called to define and discuss implementing the precautionary principle, which has been used as the basis for a growing number of international agreements. The idea of precaution underpins some U.S. policy, such as the requirement for environmental impact statements before major projects are launched using federal funds. But most existing laws and regulations focus on cleaning up and controlling damage rather than preventing it. The group concluded that these policies do not sufficiently protect people and the natural world.
Participants noted that current policies such as risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis give the benefit of the doubt to new products and technologies, which may later prove harmful. And when damage occurs, victims and their advocates have the difficult task of proving that a product or activity was responsible. The precautionary principle shifts the burden of proof, insisting that those responsible for an activity must vouch for its harmlessness and be held responsible if damage occurs. The issues of scientific uncertainty, economics, environmental and public health protection which are embedded in the principle make this extremely complex. We invite your thought and conversation on these topics.
The Wingspread Consensus Statement on the Precautionary Principle
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.
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