The Science and Environmental Health Network


Blog, Updates, and In the News

Crafting the New Story.png

Precautionary Principle – Number 194

Oil and Cancer

June 2010


As we face the unfathomable catastrophe in the Gulf, SEHN's work has proven to be more crucial than ever: calling for precaution before disasters occur and offering governments, corporations, and communities a different way forward -- one that protects future generations and the Earth they will inhabit.

With a tragically tangible example, the world now sees the urgency of preventing harm and of shifting the burden of demonstrating safety to the proponent of an activity. (With its hundreds of safety violations, surely BP's assurances of safety should have faced greater scrutiny.)

In the aftermath of the disaster, SEHN has been the go-to source for writers and experts explicitly calling for precaution. In this issue, you will find links to many of these stories -- a decade of SEHN's foundational work in action.

If you find this work important, will you join us?  Your financial support of SEHN makes it possible for us to do the work we do best.  So when positive, forward-thinking ideas are needed, we're ready.

Two recent developments have called for the precautionary principle at a new level: the continuing oil gusher in the Gulf and the recent publication of the President’s Cancer Panel report on environmental links to cancer.  But cancer and oil are not separate issues. That is why this issue starts by making a visceral link between the two.

Then we have an excerpt from the cancer report itself, which calls for a "precautionary rather than reactionary" regulatory approach to environmental carcinogens. Next are three representative articles on the report that stress the precautionary principle connection.

You'll also find an extensive collection of media coverage of the President's Cancer Panel report on the website of the Collaborative on Health and the Environment.

Naomi Klein and others call for precaution in relation to the oil disaster, written in the second month of this painfully long teachable moment.

Finally, we carry three arguments against the precautionary principle. We’ve heard these voices before, but don't you think they're sounding more desperate?

This energized national conversation on the precautionary principle is the result of vigorous groundwork by precautionary principle movers and shakers—that’s all of us—over the past decade.  The precautionary principle is the idea of the hour.

And you can help too.  Please make a contribution to the Science and Environmental Health Network and join our national conversation on what happens next.


I.  The Precautionary Principle and the Tale of Two Disasters: the BP Spill and Cancer

By Ann Cooper, Lunchbox's Posterous, June 8, 2010

"Over Memorial Day weekend I thought about cancer a lot, but I also heard over and over and over in the news all about the BP oil spill. . . . The Precautionary Principle would have led us to consider the consequences of deep water drilling until we were 'SURE' that the technology was safe. And I believe that if people and our planet were considered in equal measure with profit, a true triple bottom-line, that well before we were seeing an increase in cancer, and well before two wonderful women were undergoing chemo and radiation we would have considered the ultimate consequences."

Read the full essay


II. Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now

2008-09 report of the President’s Cancer Panel

"Recommendation # 1: A precautionary, prevention-oriented approach should replace current reactionary approaches to environmental contaminants in which human harm must be proven before action is taken to reduce or eliminate exposure. Though not applicable in every instance, this approach should be the cornerstone of a new national cancer prevention strategy that emphasizes primary prevention, redirects accordingly both research and policy agendas, and sets tangible goals for reducing or eliminating toxic environmental exposures implicated in cancer causation. The proposed Kid Safe Chemicals Act introduced in the 110th Congress, or similar legislation, has the potential to be an important first step toward a precautionary chemicals management policy and regulatory approach to reducing environmental cancer risk. Optimally, it should shift the burden of proving safety to manufacturers prior to new chemical approval, in mandatory post-market studies for new and existing agents, and in renewal applications for chemical approval." –p. xi

Download the report


III.  Better Living Through Chemistry—or Not? Strengthening the Link Between Pollution, Cancer

By Valerie Brown, Miller-McCune, May 6, 2010

"The Panel was particularly concerned to find that the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated. . . All levels of government, from federal to local, must work to protect every American from needless disease through rigorous regulation of environmental pollutants. To accomplish this, the report calls explicitly for adopting the precautionary principle."

Read the full article


IV. President's Cancer Panel: Environmental Cancer Risk Underestimated

By Roxanne Nelson, Medscape Medical News, May 13, 2010

"Exposure to environmental contaminants has a stronger impact on cancer risk than previously believed, according to a new report from the President's Cancer Panel. However, there has been a decidedly mixed reaction to the report. Some experts and organizations have applauded the effort and hailed it as a landmark document; others are concerned that it overstates the risks."

Read the full article


V. Cancer by the numbers: How many are caused by the environment?

By Brett Israel, Environmental Health News, May 20, 2010

"More than 60 percent of U.S. cancer deaths are caused by smoking and diet. But what about the rest? Some experts say a decades-old estimate that six percent is due to environmental and occupational exposures is outdated and far too low. But scientists most likely will never be able to tease out the true role of environmental contaminants. 'It's like looking at strands of a spider web and deciding which one is important,' said Dr. Ted Schettler, director of the Science and Environmental Health Network. Many environmental epidemiologists are in favor of moving toward the precautionary principle – reducing people’s exposure to environmental pollutants even if there is uncertainty about the risks."

Read the full article


VI.  Reproductive Health Concerns in the Aftermath of the Gulf Oil Disaster

by Lucinda Marshall, Truthout, June 7, 2010

"The bottom line is that we don't know if the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico will impact reproductive health because, despite some anecdotal evidence, there is little data to go on in large part because the companies responsible have been allowed to keep that data from the public and, in the case of this particular spill, we don't even know what all the chemicals involved are. It would seem that in light of that, we would be well advised to follow the Precautionary Principle."

Read the full article


VII. Gulf Oil Spill a Hole in the World

By Naomi Klein, The Guardian, June 19, 2010

"The most positive possible outcome of this disaster would be not only an acceleration of renewable energy sources like wind, but a full embrace of the precautionary principle in science. The mirror opposite of [BP CEO Tony] Hayward's 'If you knew you could not fail' credo, the precautionary principle holds that 'when an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health' we tread carefully, as if failure were possible, even likely. Perhaps we can even get Hayward a new desk plaque to contemplate as he signs compensation cheques. ‘You act like you know, but you don't know.'"

Read the full article


VIII. The BP Disaster Marks the End of the Age of Arrogance About the Environment ... Can We Change?

By Chip Ward, AlterNet, June 10, 2010

"The risk assessments that justified BP's deep-water drilling in the Gulf were more than inadequate and dishonest, they were inherently flawed because the uncertainties of the project could not be known and the consequences of failure could not be measured. . . . The so-called precautionary principle, also called the 'better safe than sorry' principle, says that we should err on the side of caution when the potential impacts of a mistake cannot be completely understood but could be serious, widespread and irreversible."

Read the full essay


IX. Grieving for the Gulf

By Annie Bond, Huffington Post, June 8, 2010

"Depression is the hallmark of the fourth stage of grief. I expect we are all dipping in and out of this when we think about the Gulf. After all, the situation brings us face to face with the practice of putting untested and untried enterprises into production without heed of the consequences. The world absolutely needs to practice The Precautionary Principle instead. But will we ever learn?"

Read the full essay


X. The 'Paralyzing' Principle: The Gulf disaster rehabilitates a discredited idea

By John Frisby, Wall Street Journal editorial, June 21, 2010

"The Gulf oil spill is having all sorts of nasty consequences well beyond damage to the regional environment and economy. Not least, the resulting political panic seems to be rehabilitating the thoroughly discredited theory of regulation known as the precautionary principle."

Read the full editorial


XI. Chemicals, Cancer and Claptrap

By Henry I. Miller and Elizabeth Whelan, Forbes, The Rationalist, June 2, 2010

"The [president's cancer] panel relied on and endorsed the so-called precautionary principle, which puts the burden of proving what amounts to absolute safety on the makers and purveyors of almost any product. It is not a principle at all but merely a highly risk-averse, unrealistic philosophical premise demanding that every activity and product be proven safe before it is undertaken or used. But how can you prove anything is completely safe? It amounts to trying to prove a negative."

Read the full essay


XII. Chemicals and Cancer

By Rudy Baum, The Editor's Blog, Chemical and Engineering News, June 1, 2010

"The 2008–09 annual report of the panel . . .  is, in a word, a mess. The report collects seemingly every cancer-scare hypothesis that's been floated over the past 30 to 40 years and suggests that we really ought to be concerned about them. It urges an extreme application of the precautionary principle to any agent suspected of being a carcinogen, especially chemicals. Most of the assertions in the report aren’t backed up by convincing scientific research."

Read the full essay


XIII. Wall Street Journal Editorial Revives the Sport of Precaution Bashing

By Amy Sinden, Alternet, June 21, 2010

"With characteristic audacity, the Wall Street Journal editorial page today is arguing against the precautionary approach to environmental policy that undergirds our system of environmental laws, even as the oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico. . . The problem is, of course, that when you require cost-benefit analysis, the environment loses, because most of the values at stake on that side of the equation—human lives, air you can breathe, water you can swim and fish in—just can’t be measured in dollar terms."

Read the full article