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The Precautionary Principle, A Retrospective


The Precautionary Principle; A Retrospective Volume 23 (1) January 2018

“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.” The Wingspread Statement, 1998

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Friends of SEHN,

A few years ago a young environmentalist said that all of her work was post-precautionary principle. It was a striking comment to me because how I understood environmental policy before and after the precautionary principle was the clichéd difference between night and day. It was as if my friend only knew day.
Twenty years ago, in January of 1998, we at the Science and Environmental Health Network convened the Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle. We aren’t keen on retrospectives for the sake of retrospectives, but we are interested in how ideas make a difference in the world. What are the conditions that make an idea take hold in policy? This is the tale of one idea, the precautionary principle.
By the early 1990s it became clear to many that the way we made environmental decisions had failed to protect public health or the natural world. A series of catastrophes from the burning of the Cuyahoga River, to the massive contamination of Love Canal, to the meltdown of Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant, showed that our technology had outrun our smarts. Environmental policy had evolved into a science-based approach that assessed risk and determined the acceptability of that risk through cost benefit analysis. Essentially this meant that decisions about toxic chemicals, nuclear power, or oil drilling, were made by economists and scientists using limited tools and data. It also meant that those decisions did not work to predict and prevent great harm.
One chemical, dioxin, was at the heart of several of the disasters including Love Canal and Times Beach. But there was an odd discrepancy: the scientific literature describing the hazards of dioxin didn’t square with the way the media reported dioxin which, in one New York Times report, compared the risk of dioxin to sun-bathing.
(photo by SEHN board member Rebecca Altman)
In the mid 1990s many of the environmental groups started a conversation about how science is used in environmental policy since it seemed to be misused more often than used well. Scientific uncertainty seemed to be at the crux of the problem. That is, when a chemical (or other activity) had not been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be harmful to humans then it couldn’t be regulated.
A few years earlier, in 1988, for a British audience, Konrad von Moltke described a German concept, the Vorsorgeprinzip that he translated into the English, as the precautionary principle.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, a scientist named Theo Colborn, working at World Wildlife Fund, had been poring over reports about how some synthetic chemicals acted to disrupt hormones in wildlife and humans. The idea of endocrine disruption explained why dioxin was such a noxious and dangerous chemical. In 1996 Colborn, Pete Myers, and Dianne Dumanoski published a monumental book entitled Our Stolen Future that described endocrine disruption in ways that any layperson could understand. Those of us who had been working in the environmental field knew that this work upended chemical regulation and the old risk assessments that had been used to make policy.
(photo by Carolyn Raffensperger)
It was against the backdrop of Love Canal and our Stolen Future that we convened the Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle to see if the concept of Vorsorgeprinzip could help us make wiser decisions in the face of uncertainty.
In late January of 1998 we gathered together scientists, activists, economists and public health officials and even politicians. We ranged from Gordon Durnil who had been Dan Quayle’s campaign chairman to representatives from Greenpeace and the Indigenous Environmental Network. Over the course of a long weekend we hammered out the Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, which laid out the basic concepts of how to implement precaution.
Over the years, we discovered some of the nuances of the principle. For instance, we knew the fulcrum of precaution was scientific uncertainty. Uncertainty is a vast concept that has many dimensions. It even has its own branch of philosophy called epistemology. What was new to us was that the precautionary principle coupled epistemology with ethics. At its core the precautionary principle mandated that even in the face of scientific uncertainty we had an ethical mandate to prevent suffering and harm.
Immediately after we convened Wingspread we began fleshing out the steps to implementation. There are five:
  • Setting goals for the kind of world we want to live in.
  • Heeding early warnings so we can take action in advance of absolute proof of harm.
  • Seeking and choosing safer alternatives to harmful activities.
  • Reversing the burden of proof so that public health and the environment get the benefit of the doubt of scientific uncertainty. (The burden of showing that something is the safest alternative and paying for damage if they are wrong must fall on the proponent of the activity).
  • Democratic participation and consent. This means that affected stakeholders and communities have a right to deny or agree to something that could harm their future.
Taken together these five steps make it more likely that we are able to actually taken precautionary action to prevent harm in the face of uncertainty.
(photo by SEHN board member Rebecca Altman)
The precautionary principle was the right idea at the right time. Activists in L.A. used it to change pesticide policy in the Los Angeles Unified School District. San Francisco adopted it as the overarching framework for its environmental ordinances. It became embedded in international treaties like the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and several others. The principle coupled with a large body of research done by Ted Schettler and many other environmental health scientists provided a rationale for changing policies that took hold in numerous states and in toxic chemical policy reform.
Our colleagues with the Indigenous Environmental Network worked with us to take the underlying ethic of preventing harm and couple it with an indigenous decision making framework of evaluating the impacts of a decision on the seventh generation. This led to a large body of work on a legal framework that recognized the rights of future generations to inherit a habitable world. To some extent climate change has driven the extension of the precautionary principle into the law of future generations.
Where are we at now? The precautionary principle rooted well at the Wingspread Conference and has now branched out into the work on future generations, political theory about the role of government and the necessity of the governed giving or withholding their free prior and informed consent. Like the precautionary principle, these ideas have broad implications for how we live together, how we inhabit a finite Earth and how we leave a healthy planet as a legacy to future generations.

Carolyn Raffensperger Executive Director

The Precautionary Principle

Historical Timeline

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The Precautionary Principle (Vorsorgeprinzip): [Vorsorge: care ahead; fore-care] Ted Schettler

“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.”
The ethical directive primum non nocere (first do no harm) has long been a guide for health care professionals weighing risks and benefits of medical recommendations. The precautionary principle (PP) extends that charge to others in positions to protect human health and the environment more generally. It calls for taking action to reduce threats of harm to what we love or depend upon. Preventive care. Not after-care. Not hospice care. Rather, forethought….fore-caring. Make sense?
No, say critics who find it un-American in a risk-taking nation. Are we to ban all activities that might be harmful? Paralyzing and a mythical concept, perhaps like a unicorn said two former directors of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Federal Office of Management and Budget.
In a sense the PP is subversive. It challenges established ways of making decisions based on a clear-eyed assessment of their track records. In the US, advocates of the PP point to thousands of untested industrial chemicals and other pollutants released into the environment that have worked their way into people and wildlife, sometimes with disastrous effects that were only identified much later after the harm was done. Beyond that, dead and dying forests, crashing fish and other wildlife populations, loss of soil and biodiversity, climate change—the list goes on.
Much of this could have been avoided with different approaches to decision-making. But critics insist that implementing the PP would impede progress and economic growth, and only established proof of harm should be grounds for restricting a product or activity. That threshold leaves us with the question: When do we know enough to act?
(Pipeline running through rainforest) (Attendees of the 2017 Women's Congress for Future Generations, photo by Kayhla Cornell)

(Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, photo by Kayhla Cornell)

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