The Science and Environmental Health Network


Blog, Updates, and In the News

Crafting the New Story.png

Precautionary Principle – Number 189

Holiday Edition



Almost a year ago, Peter Montague—and many of you--asked us to take over Rachel’s Precaution Reporter. We agreed, with some trepidation. Peter had started an important service but we knew it involved a lot of work.It does, but it’s work we’ve enjoyed. This issue of RPR is an example of why.

1. The precautionary principle movement continues! Last month Lane County, Oregon's commission became the latest government body to adopt the principle as a guide. Mary O’Brien, a noted scientist-activist and former SEHN staffer, couldn’t be happier. Thanks for your work on this, Mary!

2. It’s always good to see people incorporate the precautionary principle into the way they think and do their jobs. The waste manager of Chisago County, Minnesota is a prime example.

3. The opposition to precautionary policies continues. It's a measure of the principle's success that it has become a favorite target. We need to keep up on what the opposition is saying. This Wall Street Journal op-ed calling the precautionary principle "post-modern" (whatever that means) has been widely quoted.

We hope you love Rachel’s Precaution Reporter as much as we do and will join us by contributing to its success. All donations to SEHN are hugely appreciated, but those from RPR readers are a special vote of confidence.

Please give today!

Happy Holidays and thanks from Nancy, Katie, and the SEHN staff.

I. The Precautionary Principle: A long-term perspective for Lane Countys by Mary O’Brien, The Eugene (OR) Weekly On Nov. 10, the Lane County, Oregon commissioners adopted "The Precautionary Principle as a Guide for County Policy Development."

II. Household Hazardous Waste Center director helps put county on the map with national spotlight on local drug take-back by Denise Martin, Chisago County Press (Lindstrom, MN)

Adherence to the precautionary principle applies, explains a Minnesota waste manager. You are aware of the consequences of what you buy, what you discard, and how the item is to be used. You choose the least hazardous product when an alternative exists.

III. Climategate: Science Is Dying (Opinion) by Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal

"A relatively new, very postmodern environmental idea known as 'the precautionary principle' gets blamed for demoting science’s traditional standards of evidence".

IV. Reversal Haunts Federal Health Agency by Mireya Navarro, New York Times

When the ATSDR changed its mind about possible health hazards on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, a risk manager made a precautionary-principle case: "The absence of proof doesn’t prove safety."


I. The Precautionary Principle: A long-term perspective for Lane County

by Mary O’Brien, The Eugene (OR) Weekly, December 3, 2009

By a 5-0 vote, Lane County's commissioners recently made an astounding commitment to the county. On Nov. 10, the commissioners adopted "The Precautionary Principle as a Guide for County Policy Development."

After having studied what the precautionary principle could do for Lane County during two invited presentations (one by a San Francisco city/county employee who effectively implemented that county's 2003 precautionary principle ordinance) and two work sessions, the question the commissioners debated on Nov. 10 was whether to "endorse" the principle or "adopt" it. Lane County Performance Auditor Stewart Bollinger suggested endorsing the principle now and revisiting it later for potential adoption, but Commissioner Rob Handy warned that an “endorsed” policy would gather dust on the shelf, while "adoption" would put it to work now. Handy's perspective was supported by Commissioners Sorenson and Fleenor, and ultimately by all five commissioners.

So … what is the precautionary principle? As spelled out by our commissioners (and the principle has been spelled out differently in local ordinances to international treaties), five tenets are to be considered when bringing agenda items for commissioner decision-making. The five tenets might at first look like apple pie, but in fact they constitute a long-term perspective on human and environmental health too often lacking in our nation, and procedures designed to evoke good ideas and information from Lane County's citizens.

The tenets (abbreviated slightly here) of the Lane County Precautionary Principle policy are:

1. Anticipatory Action. County departments will consider how to prevent harm in the future as an integral part of their duties.

2. Right to Know. County departments will communicate complete and accurate information on potential human health and environmental impacts associated with their selection of products, services, operations or plans.

3. Alternatives Assessment. County departments will examine a full range of alternatives and select alternatives offering significant improvements to human health and the environment.

4. Full Cost Accounting. County departments evaluating potential alternatives have a duty to consider all significant short and long-term costs.

5. Participatory Decision Process. County departments' decisions applying the precautionary principle must be transparent, participatory and informed by the best available information. Citizens and resource users may have correct information not available internally; hence, their participation and information count as elements of "best available information."

6. The County Administrative Procedures Manual will be amended to require the incorporation of tenets 1-5 into agenda cover memos.

Thus, when departments bring a proposal to the commissioners for action, the commissioners will want to see that the departments have sought public input, considered all reasonable alternatives, considered long-term as well as short-term costs and are recommending an alternative that offers significant improvements to health and the environment. This is a wise, look-at-options-before-leaping policy, and its door is wide open to public contributions.

Significantly, the county commissioners acknowledge that citizens and resource users 1) have a right to know all potential costs, benefits and impacts of a proposal; and 2) may have information and ideas not arising internally in the department. As tenet #5 notes, citizen information and ideas may in fact be the "best available information."

The largest opportunity for citizens and civic groups will lie in offering alternatives to those being proposed by county departments whenever the departments are missing options that should be considered. Offering alternatives is also the most demanding task for citizens: to delve deeply enough into an issue to suggest a reasonable, environmentally sound and practical alternative. It's infinitely easier to criticize a policy, project or purchase than to propose a better one, but the latter course leverages the most change.

Whether adopting the precautionary principle leads to better decisions in Lane County will depend on three sectors: commission attention to whether proposals by county departments embody the first five tenets; county department implementation of the spirit of the six tenets; and citizens’ and civic organizations' timely submission to county departments of good information and sound alternatives for full consideration.

It's great policy. Innovative contributions to it by active commissioners, county departments and citizens will turn the policy into great decisions.

Mary O'Brien has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She is currently dividing her time between Eugene and Castle Valley, Utah.


II. Household Hazardous Waste Center director helps put county on the map with national spotlight on local drug take-back

by Denise Martin, Chisago County Press (Lindstrom, MN), November 19, 2009

When Paul Dennison, of rural Shafer, began volunteering more than a decade ago on a new county committee promoting recycling, he viewed it as a way to educate the public and lend Earth a hand. As he puts it, though, life is all about "timing." And, after this period of citizen-activism flew by, Dennison found himself being tapped as the right person, at the right time, for a job running Chisago County's brand new hazardous waste center.

The Household Hazardous Waste Center opened in North Branch in autumn of 2000. Maybe three years into this job, the universe tossed him another opportunity; creating Chisago County's "unwanted medication disposal program."

Dennison said it was around 2003 or so, when customers first started calling or coming by the household hazardous waste center who didn't know what to do with unwanted pharmaceuticals and even their expired over-the-counter meds.

"It was the one thing I didn't have an answer for," he continued.

About this same time the media reported the growing popularity of prescription medicines among adolescents, and the poisoning dangers these pose. Dennison also knew about the "feminization of fish" where aquatic species had physical characteristics attributed to female hormones, which in turn were believed to be originating from birth control pill waste.

Products like ibuprofen started showing up in the environment.

Don't flush waste medicines of any kind into the sanitary sewer, people were now being advised.

Wastewater treatment plants aren't currently equipped to eliminate much more than phosphates, nitrogen and solids. Now-- if you shouldn't flush waste meds, and landfilling would just allow products to seep into groundwater Dennison asked himself -- what could he give people as an option?

After meeting with law enforcement, health and human services, disposal companies and many others the county's unwanted meds disposal program was first implemented at the government center via a secure drop-box in 2007.

It has expanded to include a drop-off at North Branch Police department.

The effort has earned Dennison the national "Agent of Change" award, chosen by his peers in the hazardous waste management industry.


"If it had been just the effect of the medications on water, I don't know how far this would have gone," Dennison comments. "But, the combination of everything at that particular time...the fish, the problems with kids getting into medications, the increasing street sales of prescription drugs and even the county population aging," he said. Everything came together at one time to generate support for making this program work. Plus, there was a state grant the county won that made construction of a center in the North Branch Industrial Park even possible.

And, so Chisago County's Household Hazardous Waste Center Director went to Houston, Texas November 9-13, to the North American Hazardous Waste Materials Management Association four-day annual conference. He received recognition for this highly respected county program and he also got to advocate for national rules and facilities to improve disposal of unwanted meds.

Dennison attended sessions on stewardship of hazardous materials and related trainings as well. He feels the attitude of conference participants was quite positive overall. He got a lift, he said, being around so many others whose jobs are also to be cheerleaders for a greener way of life. "There was some sort of validation I guess you could call it," he said, "being around other people working on this."

Adherence to the precautionary principle applies, he explains. You are aware of the consequences of what you buy, what you discard, and how the item is to be used. You choose the least hazardous product when an alternative exists.

The NAHMMA practices what it preaches. Dennison's award is a wedge-shaped chunk of royal blue recycled glass.

Even though it is etched with Dennison's name-- passing through security at the airport gates it raised suspicion. Dennison has a funny story about cooling his jets in his stocking feet, minus his belt and various other garments, while guards swabbed the award and luggage testing for the presence of explosives.

And, good timing yet again, the hurricane forecast to hit Houston never materialized.

Content © 2009 Chisago County Press


III. Climategate: Science Is Dying (Opinion)

by Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal, December 3, 2009

Surely there must have been serious men and women in the hard sciences who at some point worried that their colleagues in the global warming movement were putting at risk the credibility of everyone in science. The nature of that risk has been twofold: First, that the claims of the climate scientists might buckle beneath the weight of their breathtaking complexity. Second, that the crudeness of modern politics, once in motion, would trample the traditions and culture of science to achieve its own policy goals. With the scandal at the East Anglia Climate Research Unit, both have happened at once.

I don't think most scientists appreciate what has hit them. This isn't only about the credibility of global warming. For years, global warming and its advocates have been the public face of hard science. Most people could not name three other subjects they would associate with the work of serious scientists. This was it. The public was told repeatedly that something called "the scientific community" had affirmed the science beneath this inquiry. A Nobel Prize was bestowed (on a politician).

Global warming enlisted the collective reputation of science. Because "science" said so, all the world was about to undertake a vast reordering of human behavior at almost unimaginable financial cost. Not every day does the work of scientists lead to galactic events simply called Kyoto or Copenhagen. At least not since the Manhattan Project.

What is happening at East Anglia is an epochal event. As the hard sciences—physics, biology, chemistry, electrical engineering—came to dominate intellectual life in the last century, some academics in the humanities devised the theory of postmodernism, which liberated them from their colleagues in the sciences. Postmodernism, a self-consciously "unprovable" theory, replaced formal structures with subjectivity. With the revelations of East Anglia, this slippery and variable intellectual world has crossed into the hard sciences.

This has harsh implications for the credibility of science generally. Hard science, alongside medicine, was one of the few things left accorded automatic stature and respect by most untrained lay persons. But the average person reading accounts of the East Anglia emails will conclude that hard science has become just another faction, as politicized and "messy" as, say, gender studies. The New England Journal of Medicine has turned into a weird weekly amalgam of straight medical-research and propaganda for the Obama redesign of U.S. medicine.

The East Anglians' mistreatment of scientists who challenged global warming's claims—plotting to shut them up and shut down their ability to publish—evokes the attempt to silence Galileo. The exchanges between Penn State's Michael Mann and East Anglia CRU director Phil Jones sound like Father Firenzuola, the Commissary-General of the Inquisition.

For three centuries Galileo has symbolized dissent in science. In our time, most scientists outside this circle have kept silent as their climatologist fellows, helped by the cardinals of the press, mocked and ostracized scientists who questioned this grand theory of global doom. Even a doubter as eminent as Princeton's Freeman Dyson was dismissed as an aging crank.

Beneath this dispute is a relatively new, very postmodern environmental idea known as "the precautionary principle." As defined by one official version: "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." The global-warming establishment says we know "enough" to impose new rules on the world's use of carbon fuels. The dissenters say this demotes science's traditional standards of evidence.

The Environmental Protection Agency's dramatic Endangerment Finding in April that greenhouse gas emissions qualify as an air pollutant—with implications for a vast new regulatory regime—used what the agency called a precautionary approach. The EPA admitted "varying degrees of uncertainty across many of these scientific issues." Again, this puts hard science in the new position of saying, close enough is good enough. One hopes civil engineers never build bridges under this theory.

The Obama administration's new head of policy at EPA, Lisa Heinzerling, is an advocate of turning precaution into standard policy. In a law-review article titled "Law and Economics for a Warming World," Ms. Heinzerling wrote, "Policy formation based on prediction and calculation of expected harm is no longer relevant; the only coherent response to a situation of chaotically worsening outcomes is a precautionary policy. . . "

If the new ethos is that "close-enough" science is now sufficient to achieve political goals, serious scientists should be under no illusion that politicians will press-gang them into service for future agendas. Everyone working in science, no matter their politics, has an stake in cleaning up the mess revealed by the East Anglia emails. Science is on the credibility bubble. If it pops, centuries of what we understand to be the role of science go with it.

Write to Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A21.


IV. Reversal Haunts Federal Health Agency

by Mireya Navarro,New York Times, November 30, 2009

Earlier this month, a federal health agency backed away from its earlier findings that decades of explosive detonations by the Navy on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques posed no health hazards to residents.

It was the second time this year that the agency, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, changed its mind in a highly publicized case. Last April the agency, charged with analyzing public health risks from environmental contamination, rescinded its conclusion that contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune, N.C., posed no increased risk of cancer to adults.

Now the agency, part of the Health and Human Services Department, is facing tough scrutiny from Congress and the threat of reform legislation, with some lawmakers accusing it of cursory evaluations that often get the science wrong and ignore independent studies and community complaints.

A report last March by the staff of the House Science and Technology Committee's Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight found that the agency produced "deeply flawed" scientific reports. The Government Accountability Office, the Congressional investigative arm, is looking into how the agency reviews and validates its public health assessments in an evaluation expected to be completed by next spring.

"It seems to have gotten into their culture to do quick and dirty studies and to be too willing to say there are no public health consequences," said Representative Brad Miller, Democrat of North Carolina and the subcommittee chairman. "People should be able to count on the government to tell them the truth."

Created in 1980 as part of the legislation establishing the Superfund program, which administers the cleanup of the nation's worst contaminated sites, the toxic substances agency evaluates the health risks at Superfund sites and carries out consultations in other cases of contamination. Its findings, based on available research and its own investigations, often determine the kind of treatment and compensation victims receive from polluters and the government.

But critics say that the agency, which works with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has never recovered from problems identified in previous G.A.O. investigations in the 1980s and 1990s that found that it was inadequately staffed and that its health assessments were "seriously deficient."

In a case that particularly shock some members of the House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, the agency ruled in 2007 that trailers housing victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita posed no health risks, despite containing high levels of formaldehyde.

The evaluation was conducted at the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which faced litigation from families complaining that fumes from the trailers were making them sick. The toxic substances agency later revised its findings, and FEMA acknowledged at a news conference that the formaldehyde levels were high enough to endanger trailer occupants' health.

A spokesman for the toxic substances agency said Dr. Howard Frumkin, the agency's director since 2005, was traveling out of the country and unavailable for comment. But in written answers to a reporter's questions, agency officials said the agency had "a strong record of adhering to proven science to advance public health" and a commitment to revising previous findings in light of new technology and scientific discoveries.

Agency officials said they were currently reviewing conclusions in other cases but refused to name them or specify how many cases were being reviewed. At a Congressional hearing on the agency in March, Dr. Frumkin said he recognized the need for improvement and had opened a national conversation with environmental and public health groups to examine the agency’s approach to chemical exposures. He said that understaffing was an issue — the agency carries out about 400 health assessments and consultations each year with a staff of about 300 people and an annual budget of $74 million — but that a bigger challenge was that "definitive answers sometimes do not exist."

In Vieques, a Superfund site, the toxic substances agency concluded in 2003 that the levels of heavy metals and explosive compounds found in the soil, groundwater, air and fish did not pose a health risk.

But after meeting with residents of Vieques and scientists who had done research on the island, the agency reversed course, saying it had identified gaps in environmental data that could be important in determining health effects and calling for additional monitoring.

In Camp Lejeune, another Superfund site, the toxic substances agency acknowledged that it had failed to account for high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, in its findings a decade earlier and said it would investigate further. Former residents have filed claims for billions of dollars in damages over cancer, birth defects and other health problems for which they blame years of exposure to a water supply contaminated by an off-base dry cleaning business and other sources.

Some experts faulted the agency as equating the lack of proof with safe conditions. "The absence of proof doesn’t prove safety, and that's where I think they are off base," said John Wargo, a professor of environmental risk analysis at Yale University who was consulted by the agency regarding Vieques and who recommended rescinding the conclusion of no hazard in that case.

Lawmakers like Mr. Miller also accuse the agency of acting out of political expediency in some cases, like that of the FEMA trailers. Mr. Miller said that one solution would be to require more peer review of the agency’s findings but that he would prefer that Obama administration officials undertook improvements without the need of legislation.

In the meantime, he and other members of Congress have called on Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to help victims now and have introduced bills to require the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide health care to them while the studies continue. In Vieques, where local studies show unusually high rates of cancer, hypertension and other illnesses, most of the nearly 10,000 residents have sued in federal court to seek compensation and health benefits from the Navy.Robert Rabin, a community activist on the island, welcomed this month's announcement as a potential turning point. Mr. Rabin called the agency "a serious obstacle" to communities' efforts to make the federal government pay for health damages and medical services.

Residents were now "cautiously optimistic" that their health claims might be settled, Mr. Rabin said.