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The Precautionary Principle - March 1998

The Networker
I. Editor's Note: The Precautionary Principle - A Fact Sheet Carolyn Raffensperger
II. Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle SEHN
III. The Precautionary Principle and Toxics Use Reduction Joel Tickner
IV. The Organic Rule: An opportunity to test the Precautionary Principle Frederick Kirschenmann
V. Eight Tenets of Precaution: Commentary on the Wingspread Statement Jeff Howard
  I. Editor's Note: The Precautionary Principle - A Fact Sheet TOP
By Carolyn Raffensperger Article I. The Precautionary Principle: A Fact Sheet Prepared by the Science and Environmental Health Network

What is the precautionary principle? A comprehensive definition of the precautionary principle was spelled out in a January 1998 meeting of scientists, lawyers, policy makers and environmentalists at Wingspread, headquarters of the Johnson Foundation in Racine, Wisconsin. The Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, summarizes the principle this way:

"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."

Key elements of the principle include taking precaution in the face of scientific uncertainty; exploring alternatives to possibly harmful actions; placing the burden of proof on proponents of an activity rather than on victims or potential victims of the activity; and using democratic processes to carry out and enforce the principle - including the public right to informed consent. Is there some special meaning for "precaution"? It's the common sense idea behind many adages: "Be careful." "Better safe than sorry." "Look before you leap." "First do no harm."

What about "scientific uncertainty"? Why should we take action before science tells us what is harmful or what is causing harm? Sometimes if we wait for proof it is too late. Scientific standards for demonstrating cause and effect are very high. For example, smoking was strongly suspected of causing lung cancer long before the link was demonstrated conclusively - that is, to the satisfaction of scientific standards of cause and effect. By then, many smokers had died of lung cancer. But many other people had already quit smoking because of the growing evidence that smoking was linked to lung cancer. These people were wisely exercising precaution despite some scientific uncertainty.

Often a problem - such as a cluster of cancer cases or global warming - is too large, its causes too diverse, or the effects too long term to be sorted out with scientific experiments that would prove cause and effect. It's hard to take these problems into the laboratory. Instead, we have to rely on observations, case studies or predictions based on current knowledge.

According to the precautionary principle, when substantial scientific evidence of any kind gives us good reason to believe that an activity, technology or substance may be harmful, we should act to prevent harm. If we always wait for scientific certainty, people may suffer and die, and damage to the natural world may be irreversible. We have lots of environmental regulations. Aren't we already exercising precaution? In some cases, to some extent, yes. When federal money is to be used in a major project, such as building a road on forested land or developing federal waste programs, the planners must produce an "environmental impact statement" to show how it will affect the surroundings. Then the public has a right to help determine whether the study has been thorough and all the alternatives considered. That is a precautionary action.

But most environmental regulations, such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Superfund Law, are aimed at cleaning up pollution and controlling the amount of it released into the environment. They regulate toxic substances as they are emitted rather than limiting their use or production in the first place.

These laws have served an important purpose - they have given us cleaner air, water and land. But they are based on the assumption that humans and ecosystems can absorb a certain amount of contamination without being harmed. We are now learning how difficult it is to know what levels of contamination, if any, are safe.

Many of our food and drug laws and practices are more precautionary. Before a drug is introduced into the marketplace, the manufacturer must demonstrate that it is safe and effective. Then people must be told about risks and side effects before they use it.

But there are some major loopholes in our regulations. If the precautionary principle were universally applied, many toxic substances, contaminants, and unsafe practices would not be produced or used in the first place. The precautionary principle concentrates on prevention rather than cure.

How would the precautionary principle change that without bringing the economy to a halt? It would encourage the exploration of alternatives - better, safer, cheaper ways to do things- and the development of "cleaner" products and technologies. Sometimes simply slowing down in order to learn more about potential harm is the best alternative.

It would shift the burden of proof from the public to proponents of a technology. The principle would ensure that the public knows about and has a say in the deployment of technologies that may be hazardous. Proponents would have to demonstrate through an open process that a technology was safe or necessary and that no better alternatives were available.

Is the Precautionary Principle a new idea? The precautionary principle was introduced in Europe in the 1980s and became the basis for the 1987 treaty that bans dumping of toxic substances in the North Sea. It figures in the Convention on Biodiversity. A growing number of Swedish and German environmental laws are based on the precautionary principle.

Interpretations of the principle vary, but the Wingspread Statement is the first to define its major components and explain the rationale behind it.

Will the countries that adopt the precautionary principle become less competitive on the world marketplace? The idea is to progress more carefully than we have done before. Some technologies may be brought onto the marketplace more slowly. Others may be stopped or phased out. On the other hand, there will be many incentives to create new technologies that will make it unnecessary to produce and use harmful substances and processes. These new technologies will bring economic benefits in the long run. Countries on the forefront of stronger environmental laws, such as Germany and Sweden, have developed new, cleaner technologies despite temporary higher costs. They are now able to export these technologies. Other countries risk being left behind, with outdated facilities and technologies. How can we possibly prevent all bad side effects from technological progress? Hazards are a part of life. But it is important for people to press for less harmful alternatives, to exercise their rights to a clean, life-sustaining environment and, when they could be exposed to hazards, to know what those hazards are and to have a part in deciding whether to accept them.

How will the precautionary principle be implemented? The precautionary principle should become the basis for reforming environmental laws and regulations and for creating new regulations. It is essentially an approach, a way of thinking. In coming years, precaution should be exercised, argued and promoted on many levels - in regulations, industrial practices, science, consumer choices, education, communities, and schools.



  II. Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle TOP

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.

Wingspread Participants:

Dr. Nicholas Ashford M.I.T.
Katherine Barrett Univ. of British Columbia
Anita Bernstein Chicago-Kent College of Law
Dr. Robert Costanza Univ. of Maryland
Pat Costner Greenpeace
Dr. Carl Cranor Univ. of California, Riverside
Dr. Peter deFur Virginia Commonwealth Univ.
Gordon Durnil Attorney
Dr. Kenneth Geiser Toxics Use Reduction Inst., Univ. of Mass., Lowell
Dr. Andrew Jordan Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment, Univ. Of East Anglia
Andrew King United Steelworkers of America, Canadian Office
Dr. Frederick Kirschenmann Farmer
Stephen Lester Center for Health, Environment and Justice
Sue Maret Union Inst.
Dr. Michael M'Gonigle Univ. of Victoria, British Columbia
Dr. Peter Montague Environmental Research Foundation
Dr. John Peterson Myers W. Alton Jones Foundation
Dr. Mary O'Brien Environmental Consultant
Dr. David Ozonoff Boston Univ.
Carolyn Raffensperger Science and Environmental Health Network
Dr. Philip Regal Univ. of Minnesota
Hon. Pamela Resor Massachusetts House of Representatives
Florence Robinson Louisiana Environmental Network
Dr. Ted Schettler Physicians for Social Responsibility
Ted Smith Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition
Dr. Klaus-Richard Sperling Alfred-Wegener- Institut, Hamburg
Dr. Sandra Steingraber Author
Diane Takvorian Environmental Health Coalition
Joel Tickner Univ. of Mass., Lowell
Dr. Konrad von Moltke Dartmouth College
Dr. Bo Wahlstrom KEMI (National Chemical Inspectorate), Sweden
Jackie Warledo Indigenous Environmental Network

Affiliations are noted for identification purposes only.


  III. The Precautionary Principle and Toxics Use Reduction TOP
By Joel Tickner  

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) recently published a report entitled Toxic Ignorance, which follows a 1984 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report that showed that we know little about the health effects of industrial chemicals. The EDF report found that 71% of some 3,000 high production/high priority chemicals lack even minimal screening data, the most basic of toxicological data. 52% of those chemicals on the Toxics Release Inventory, supposedly those most studied, lack basic data. For those chemicals identified as high exposure, 57% lack adequate data. Even less is known about chemicals that are of lower production or aren't of regulatory priority.

The authors conclude that uncertainty and ignorance about toxic chemicals and their effect has not improved since the NAS study yet government and industry continue to make decisions based on inadequate information that impact public and environmental health.

Many people would say the appropriate response to this lack of information is more testing and risk assessment. However, risk assessment cannot solve the problem of a lack of fundamental information about mechanisms of action or variability in exposure. Chemical by chemical risk assessment is costly and takes too long.

Risk Assessment was developed for well-defined, easily analyzed problems such as bridge construction. For complex environmental problems, risk assessment requires a wide variety of assumptions about hazard, exposure, dose-response, etc. Even single parameters such as human breathing rates can vary widely. The National Academy of Sciences has estimated that at least 50 assumptions are needed for the average risk assessment. As a result, a single, simple risk assessment conducted by different scientists can vary widely in results.

The limitations of science to answer questions about cause-effect provide a clear rational for the precautionary principle. We have great uncertainties about the effects of toxic chemicals on humans, some of which can be reduced, some not. We have to be clear that what we do in the face of scientific uncertainty is a policy decision, not a scientific one: not acting is a decision.

The precautionary principle says "act based on suspicion rather than proof." It demands that we look to see if there is a safer way of doing things. Rather than "how much is safe", which we can never know with any certainty, it asks "how much contamination can be avoided? What are the alternatives to this product or activity? The precautionary principle focuses on options, not risk, which shifts the nature of the problem to be solved. It forces the initiator of an activity to address fundamental questions of how it can behave in a more environmentally sensitive manner. When looking at options, risk assessment is relegated to a second tier, used for comparing options.

The Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Act (TURA) is a salient example of the principle of precautionary action. Passed in 1989, the Act requires that manufacturing firms using specific quantities of some 900 industrial chemicals undergo a bi-yearly process to identify alternatives to reduce use of those chemicals. There are several aspects of Toxics Use Reduction that make it a good example of precautionary action.

First, the Commonwealth established a goal of a 50% reduction of toxic by-product (waste) through toxics use reduction techniques.

Second, the Act does not instruct industrial facilities to identify the "safe" level of use, emissions or exposure to chemicals. Rather, the act instructs firms to identify ways to reduce their waste and, subsequently, use of those chemicals - any amount of use is considered too much.

Third, the act instructs companies to go through an alternatives assessment process whereby they understand why they use a specific chemical (what "service" it provides); how it is used in the production process. They conduct a comprehensive financial, technical, environmental, and occupational health and safety analysis of viable alternatives. The firm is not required to undertake any particular option but in many cases the economic and environmental/health and safety benefits provide enough justification for action (waste is a sign of inefficiency in a production process and there are very high costs associated with chemical purchases, tracking, and waste disposal).

Lastly, companies are required to measure their progress yearly at reducing their use of toxic chemicals. This information is publicly available.

While the burden of proof is on the firm to identify alternatives and analyze their chemical impacts, Massachusetts provides support to ensure that progress is made reducing toxic chemical use.

Last year, TURI conducted an analysis of the Act. From 1990-1995 companies in Massachusetts reduced their toxic chemical emissions by more than two-thirds, their total chemical waste by 30% and their total use by 20%. On the cost side, the Act saved Massachusetts' industry some 15 million dollars. This figure does not include the public health and environmental benefits gained through the program.

Toxics use reduction provides an example of how the precautionary principle can be applied to industrial chemicals. The process involves understanding what you are trying to do, how you are doing it, measuring impacts and progress, and systematically searching for and analyzing alternatives on a regular basis. This process can be applied to most human activities that impact public health or ecosystems.

Massachusetts now has an opportunity to expand on the Act by passing precautionary principle legislation introduced by the Hon. Pamela Resor. This legislation was brought before the Natural Resources Committee in last year's session. It is currently being redrafted to reflect the Wingspread conference on the precautionary principle.

In the end, if we are to move forward with the precautionary principle, more types of legislation like that passed in 1989 and now introduced in Massachusetts will be needed.

(This article is based on testimony provided before the Natural Resources Committee of the MA House of Representatives in Nov., 1997) 


  IV. The Organic Rule: An opportunity to test the Precautionary Principle TOP
By Dr. Frederick KirschenmannSince its inception, organic agriculture has been a farming system that has, in principle, adhered to the precept of precaution. It is a system of farming that uses nature's own ecosystem services to produce food and fiber for human consumption. Instead of using exogenous inputs, it uses nature's own cycles and organisms to achieve production goals. Instead of using manufactured soluble nitrogen, for example, it uses leguminous plants whereby bacteria "fix" atmospheric nitrogen in the soil.

This approach to agriculture means that organic farmers have been alert to the fact that they need to protect, from harm, the natural systems on which their production practices depend. Hence the precautionary approach.

About a decade ago the organic community with consumer and environmental groups, lobbied the U.S. Congress to pass federal legislation to regulate organic production and handling. That request was market driven. Since organic food had become popular unscrupulous entrepreneurs had started to label foods as organically produced when they had not been produced or manufactured in accordance with organic principles.

As a result the Organic Foods Production Act was enshrined in the 1990 Farm Bill and USDA was instructed to craft the rule to implement the legislation. The proposed rule was published in the Federal Register December 16, 1998.

The proposed rule generally follows a risk assessment approach to regulation. The philosophy of risk assessment allows a potentially harmful practice to continue unless or until cause/effect data substantiates that the practice in question causes a level of harm that can not be justified in relationship to the benefits of the practice.

While much of the rule proposes sound organic principles, it allows for practices and materials to be used in organic production and handling that have previously not been allowed by most private certification systems. The rule allows such previously prohibited practices PROVIDED THAT certain kinds of environmental degradation do not occur. This is where the risk assessment, rather than the precautionary principle, drives the regulatory scheme.

The rule would, for example, allow certain soil amendments to be used so long as no "measurable degradation" to soil quality could be established. This means that while organic agriculture has traditionally said "no" to any materials that were inconsistent with a natural farming system as a precaution against harmful affects, the rule would ALLOW suspect practices so long as measurable degradation could not be established.

A good example of how this would play itself out in the organic world can be seen in an example that the rule provides in its Preamble.

For example, if nitrate levels in an adjacent well are found to increase over two or more crop years following application of a highly soluble mined source of nitrogen to soil...then the practice would have to be terminated or modified to prevent further adverse effects on water nitrate levels. (205.2)

This is clearly a risk assessment approach. It would allow the use of a material (highly soluble nitrogen), which had previously been prohibited in principle, until it could be demonstrated by cause/effect scientific measurement that degradation had occurred. Rather than taking precautionary steps to prevent the degradation from occurring, this rule requires that the practice be stopped after the degradation has occurred.

Such a risk assessment approach not only runs a greater risk of doing harm to the environment, it also runs the risk of destabilizing the organic agriculture system. Organic farmers depend on the health of natural ecosystem services to achieve their production goals. Allowing the use of exogenous inputs in place of practices that encourage more robust ecosystem services could result in the degradation of those very services, and therefore impair the productivity of organic farming. Numerous ecologists have demonstrated how the health of natural ecosystems and agricultural productivity are intimately connected. (See, for example, Y. Baskin, The Work of Nature, 1997, and S. Buchmann & G. Nabhan, The Forgotten Pollinators, 1996)

The organic rule provides a perfect opportunity for federal regulatory agencies to apply the precautionary principle. Since organic agriculture has traditionally used the principle of precaution in practice, applying the precautionary principal to the regulatory scheme should be a perfect fit. And once a regulatory scheme has been developed for organic agriculture, using the precautionary principle, it might become more feasible to apply it to other, appropriate regulatory initiatives.

There is some indication that the industry is interested in applying the precautionary principle to the organic regulation. At its annual conference on February 9, 1998, the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society proposed, as one of their six priorities concerning the rule, that the precautionary principle should guide the final rule.


  V. Eight Tenets of Precaution: Commentary on the Wingspread TOP
By Jeff Howard 

The core of the recent Wingspread statement on precaution is contained in its two final paragraphs, which define the Precautionary Principle and describe its application. In these paragraphs, we find three explicit tenets of precaution (presented here in slightly altered form):

  • 1. 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.
  • 2. The proponent of a technological activity, rather than the public, bears the burden of proof.
  • 3. Precaution must be an open, democratic process involving all affected parties and examination of the full range of social and technological alternatives.

A number of precaution advocates have warned against allowing the Principle to become captive to non-precautionary thinking and policies. Barrett and Raffensperger (1998), for example, caution that non-precautionary policies may come to be disguised behind a "precautionary gloss." I submit that to reduce this risk the Precautionary Principle must embody at least five additional tenets, which I will briefly sketch.

First, it is important to acknowledge that in environmental affairs, cause-and-effect relationships that are "fully established" scientifically are the exception rather than the rule. And as I point out elsewhere (Howard 1997a1997b), fully establishing such relationships almost always means waiting so long as to effectively preclude precautionary action.  Moreover, it is important to acknowledge that "threats of harm to human health or the environment" do not stem merely from discrete activities. If we are to effectively address rampant environmental degradation, it is crucial that we address not just its proximate but its root causes, not just individual technological activities but systems of technological activity. If precaution is to address systemic stresses and impacts, we must exercise precaution systematically. This leads us to the fourth and fifth tenets:

  • 4. Precaution must become the default mode of all technological decision making.   One of our priorities must be stemming the tide of ongoing environmental impacts driven by non-precautionary decision making in the past:
  • 5. A precautionary policy regarding future impacts demands that even the most fundamental of past technological decisions be subject to reexamination and reform.

The final three tenets (6-8) I will illustrate by reference to one of the most well-known proposals for precaution, a proposed ban on most uses of chlorine as an industrial feedstock.

Chlorine-ban proposals, advocated by the International Joint Commission, Greenpeace, the American Public Health Association, and numerous grassroots organizations, are based in part on the insight that chemical decision making cannot rationally or sustainably proceed on a chemical by-chemical basis:

So many discrete synthetic substances are in play (in air, water, soil and the tissues of the human and nonhuman biota) that it is irrational for scientific and bureaucratic evaluation to focus primarily on individual chemicals. The alternative framework requires a shift in the unit of analysis -- investigation and regulation of entire chemical classes, in this case the chlorinated substances. The crucial issue here is recognizing and accepting responsibility for the linkage between the scale of assault on the environment and the scale of decision making:

  • 6. Precaution requires that the primary mode of regulation and regulatory science be shifted to the macro scale.

Closely related is the issue of how much additional scientific information we must acquire in order to undertake rational, systematic, macro-scale precautionary regulation. The crucial issue is whether the scientific data we need is yet to be generated, written up, peer reviewed, and published -or is already sitting on the library shelf. Proposals for a chlorine ban assert that, although we lack detailed knowledge of the specific behaviors and impacts of most individual chlorinated substances, we know enough about the general characteristics and environmental behaviors of chlorinated chemicals to warrant sweeping action against the entire class. The underlying assertion is that if scientific data at one scale (e.g., individual chemical congeners) are insufficient to allow informed precautionary action, we are obligated to employ data available at a larger scale (e.g., chemical classes). Hence:

  • 7. In precautionary assessment of environmental impacts, knowledge of broad patterns trumps ignorance of detail.

Even with a commitment to macro-scale regulation based on our knowledge of broad patterns of environmental impacts, the regulatory agenda would too often be shifted out of its default mode -- precaution -- unless we simultaneously undertake another kind of pattern-making as well. It is essential for society to formulate and adhere to broad (and admittedly socially constructed) ecological principles, in the form of "principles of society-in-nature."  Proposals for a chlorine ban are based, in part, on such a principle: Nature does not circulate large quantities of organochlorine substances in the global ecosphere, so human society, which is   embedded in Nature, ought not do so. In a more general form:

  • 8. Precaution demands that human society identify, and accommodate itself to, broad patterns in ecological processes.

The Precautionary Principle has proven attractive because it points out, and promises to correct, some of the fundamental flaws in society's conception of rational technological development. To reduce the Principle's vulnerability to half measures and semantic abuses -- non-precautionary policies disguised beneath a "precautionary gloss" -- we must formulate the Principle in a way that deepens and extends its critique and the alternative path it envisions.  I propose these additional tenets (4-8) as essential components of a more thorough critique and a more comprehensive vision of what it means for environmental policy to be precautionary. 

References Barrett, Katherine, and Carolyn Raffensperger. 1998. "Precautionary science." Paper prepared for Wingspread Conference on Implementing the Precautionary Principle, Racine, Wisconsin. January 23-25.Howard, Jeff. 1997a "Endocrine-disrupting pollutants, sustainability, and the limits and politics of environmental health science." Paper presented at annual meeting of Society for Social Studies of Science, Tucson, October 23-26.

Howard, Jeff. 1997b. "Chemical pollution, human health, and sustainability: Confronting the limits and politics of scientific expertise."  Master's thesis, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Department of Science and Technology Studies, Troy, NY.

Jeff Howard, M.S. Environmental Consultant Fort Worth, TX