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Precautionary Principle – Number 198

Precaution and Cumulative Impacts

November/December 2010


I.   A Thank-You to Our Friends

This year SEHN's call for precaution was more crucial than ever—because it offers a different way forward that protects future generations and the earth they will inhabit. This work is not ours alone. Your financial support of SEHN makes it possible in these challenging times.

In this issue of Rachel's Precaution Reporter we bring you a familiar precaution rhythm—two steps forward and one step back.

The good news:

  • The endorsement of precaution by two respected sources: the prestigious Institute of Medicine and CNN's popular medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
  • A draft report by the California EPA's Cumulative Impacts and Precautionary Approaches (CIPA) Workgroup, of which SEHN Legal Director Joe Guth was a member. This groundbreaking report is the first to propose a metric for comparing environmental impacts in stressed communities.

But the breaking news is that industry has already successfully pressured California's hazard assessment office to gut the CIPA recommendations, which would have represented crucial progress for environmental justice.

This shows how much work we have ahead of us to build precautionary decision structures strong enough to withstand such pressures. SEHN has therefore launched acomprehensive think-and-do-project on cumulative impacts, which will be a major focus of our work in 2011.

Even more important is the cumulative impact of your ideas, advocacy of precaution, and financial support for this work.

The economy has hit nonprofits hard. We are up against formidable foes with very deep pockets, and we need you to help ensure the work continues.

Thanks for all you do.

Happy holidays from the SEHN staff--

Carolyn Raffensperger, Katie Silberman, Nancy Myers, Joe Guth, Ted Schettler, Sherri Seidmon


II. Cautious about Calcium and Doubts about D: Did the IOM Report Get It Right? 

Dr. David L. Katz, Prevention, November 30, 2010

The Institute of Medicine's "cautious conclusions are based on studies that fail to show clear benefits of higher doses, and studies that suggest (but do not prove) the possibility of harm. They are also based on the prime directive of biomedicine- 'first do no harm,' and its cousin, the precautionary principle."

Read blog with link to the IOM report


III.  Chemicals around Us--We Must Know More

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN Health, October 26, 2010

"Besides the cost saving in waste disposal, experts seemed confident the precautionary principle would spark innovation, create fewer hazardous chemicals and allow companies to remain as profitable as ever."

Read entire post


IV. Cumulative Impacts: Building a Scientific Foundation

Draft Report of the Cumulative Impacts and Precautionary Approaches Workgroup, California Environmental Protection Agency, August 19, 2010

The report "explains how the assessment of cumulative pollution impact on a community must include not only the levels of pollutants but also the public health effects found in the community from the pollution, such as asthma and cancer, and the degradation of the environment. Also … the report explains that sensitivity and socioeconomic factors of the population must also be accounted for when assessing cumulative impacts. An appendix to the report describes key scientific methods to assess cumulative impacts from an inventory. The report lays out a new screening methodology for analyzing cumulative impacts that takes into account all the above factors."

Download the PDF report and access public comments


V. Industry Driving California EPA to Ease Key Precautionary Principle Report 

Risk Policy Report (US EPA), November 29, 2010

California's health hazard office, under pressure from major industry groups, is rewriting a controversial report to be used by California EPA (Cal/EPA) to implement the "precautionary principle" in policies and regulations, sources say. The state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment's (OEHHA's) policy document is being closely followed by environmental justice advocates and industry officials, because the concepts of the precautionary principle and cumulative impacts are controversial and largely untested in regulations. Early drafts of federal chemical management reform have been attacked as hewing too closely to precautionary principles.

The precautionary principle refers to the notion that agencies do not need unequivocal science before taking action to reduce exposure to suspected contaminants. Cumulative impacts refer to measuring total health risks from various pollutants in a specific area. Both concepts are considered cornerstones of the environmental justice movement.

Advocates have acknowledged that many scientific tools do not yet exist to adequately gauge the health effects of cumulative impacts. Nevertheless, precaution needs to be exercised when permitting new pollution sources in neighborhoods that already house a disproportionate share of industrial facilities, activists argue.

The revised report, including a "screening tool," will include significant changes from a previous draft addressing a variety of concerns raised by industry groups, sources say. For example, industry officials argued the plan could allow regulators to arbitrarily put more emphasis on certain environmental impacts on communities.

The revised report is expected to be followed by the release of guidelines for how Cal/EPA agencies may incorporate the screening tool in various programs, sources said. Cal/EPA officials want to finalize the policy documents by the end of the year before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) exits, sources indicated.

The report and guidelines in question are seen as OEHHA fulfilling a commitment to address the complex issue of cumulative impacts on human health tied to various exposures to pollution. The policy documents may eventually be used by Cal/EPA agencies in decision-making, such as writing permits. Environmental justice groups have long pressured regulators to implement some form of the precautionary principle and address cumulative impacts in decision-making.

Industry representatives earlier this month met with OEHHA officials to discuss the report released earlier this year. OEHHA has indicated it plans to make significant changes, including removing some proposals or concepts that industry found problematic, industry sources say.

An OEHHA spokeswoman confirms that OEHHA is currently reviewing and revising the report "after receiving a number of helpful comments from interested parties." The spokeswoman could not say what specific changes might be made to the report, but most address concerns raised in comments provided by stakeholder groups.

"Ideally, this work will be finished by the end of the year," the OEHHA spokeswoman says. "While the timing of the report is not necessarily tied to the end of the [Schwarzenegger] Administration, we have always indicated our goal was to complete this document by the end of the year."

In the draft report, Cumulative Impacts: Building a Scientific Foundation, OEHHA presents a screening methodology for cumulative impacts. The screening tool uses a formula to screen for relative levels of impacts among communities, based on five components from Cal/EPA's working definition that describe the geographic area: exposures, public health and environmental effects, sensitive subpopulations and socioeconomic information.

For the screening analysis of cumulative impacts in a community, each of the five components is assigned a score based on the magnitude of impact, the draft report states. The five scores are added and then multiplied as indicated in a specific formula to yield a final score representing the cumulative impacts of multiple pollution sources in that community.

The draft report also indicated that Cal/EPA agencies could incorporate the screening tool into policy decisions. For example, cumulative impacts information "can be used by Cal/EPA programs to devise prevention or mitigation strategies that can benefit highly impacted areas of the state," the draft report states.

Industry sources indicate that Cal/EPA Secretary Linda Adams is committed to OEHHA revising the report and getting it finished by the end of the year. Industry officials are confident that the revisions to the report will address many of their concerns, sources say. For example, OEHHA officials indicated they may concur with industry that the report should not be used for California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) guidance, sources said.

OEHHA may also revise its methodology for how pollution exposures and risks are calculated under the screening tool, sources say. Industry officials earlier this year argued that the initial screening tool and methodology could result in agencies arbitrarily weighing environmental impacts. Depending on how agencies weigh these impacts, there could be dramatically different "scores" resulting from the screening tool, industry officials argued.

After the report is rewritten and released, OEHHA is then expected to develop guidance for how the screening tool would be used by Cal/EPA agencies to incorporate cumulative impacts and environmental justice into regulatory programs, sources say.

Environmentalists said they were aware OEHHA would likely make changes to the report, but were unclear about the changes. "As long as they are reasonable, I just want them to finalize it," an environmentalist says. A second environmentalist says it is critical that the draft report and methodology be improved. The original draft was "not prescriptive and that is the problem," the source said. Having different agencies implement the policies in different ways would be problematic, the source said. "Any recommendations they make need to be clear," including specific parameters.