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War and the Precautionary Principle - April 2003

The Networker
I. Editor's Note: War and the Precautionary Principle Nancy Myers
II. Meeting Announcement ASIPI
III. War's Side Effects Nancy Myers
IV. Birds, Kids, And Pesticides Carolyn Raffensperger
  I. Editor's Note - War And The Precautionary Principle TOP
By Nancy Myers We at the Science and Environmental Health Network have tried to resist the temptation to put absolutely everything under the umbrella of the precautionary principle. But we keep coming up against the fact that the precautionary principle represents rationality and responsibility in a world in which so many human actions are heedless and short-sighted. If the precautionary principle doesn't apply to just about everything, we need more principles like it that do.As we watched the war in Iraq unfold, we couldn't help thinking about the precautionary principle. We invite you to read our essays and do the same.



  II. Meeting Announcement - ASIPI TOP

"Science and Spin Doctors: When Health Collides with Politics"Keynote Speakers: Sandra Steingraber and Lovell Jones.

The second national meeting of the Association for Science in the Public Interest (ASIPI) will meet in Fairfax Virginia on the campus of George Mason University May 31- June 2, 2003. The meeting will examine issues such as food safety and production, endocrine disruptors, and PBDEs, with workshops on dealing with the media and expert witnessing.

For registration and conference information, see ASIPI's web page or directly via E-mail to You may contact Dr. P. L. deFur at

  III. War's Side Effects TOP
By Nancy Myers

"Think carefully about the effects of waging a war that might damage our fragile planet and its people for decades to come," warned the authors of Collateral Damage: Environmental and Health Costs of War on Iraq. Issued in November 2002 by Medact, the UK branch of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the report calculated the impact of the first Gulf War and its aftermath and predicted the havoc that would be wreaked by the next one.Publishing this report was one of many heroic efforts by organizations, governments, and individuals worldwide to stave off another war in Iraq. These efforts failed, but they were part of a battle for hearts and minds that is being waged with increasing intensity around the world. (Pardon the war metaphor.) The target hearts and minds belong to those in power who consider war a legitimate and effective policy instrument. People have gathered in the streets and assembled reports like this one, pointing to the children, the earth, the aftermath, the consequences, saying, Don't you see?

War's intended consequences -- dead soldiers, decapitated governments, shattered structures and infrastructures -- are horrifying enough, but people who oppose war have given ground somewhat on those arguments. Those results are part of the ghastly game. They fall within the rules. So the opponents of war -- all wars or particular ones -- focus on the unintended consequences, hoping to move our leaders. Four hundred thousand Iraqi children, dead from combined effects of the last war and the sanctions that followed, do not fit anyone's rules. (See Medact p. 4, citing Garfield and Yamada.) A thick crust of "tarcrete" from burned Kuwaiti oil wells still smothers life 12 years later. The first Gulf War bred the terror that bred the next war, which will breed more terror.

The Medact report authors lament the dearth of solid information about the side effects of war. Yet the emerging principle of international law known as the precautionary principle calls for action to protect human health and the environment even when our knowledge is incomplete. The Wingspread Statement on the principle, for example, says, "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."

War, of course, raises more "threats of harm to human health or the environment" than any other human activity, and the obvious precautionary action is to make peace instead of war. But the precautionary principle also helps us develop peripheral vision for unintended consequences. That is a useful habit. It is what we are trying to teach our leaders.


Since the first Gulf War, depleted-uranium (DU) antitank weapons have become a platform for the side-effects argument against war. The United States used DU antitank weapons extensively in that war. Shells tipped with depleted uranium work well against tanks because uranium is a very dense metal, nearly twice as dense as lead (it also makes good tank armor), and more penetrating than tungsten. The uranium ignites on contact, burning its way into the tank.

Depleted uranium is not only dense and penetrating; it is also plentiful. The United States has a stockpile of 700,000 metric tons of the material, left over from processing natural uranium to make reactor fuel and weapons. By law, this low-level radioactive substance must eventually be safely used, stored, or disposed. Making it into weapons, oddly enough, qualifies as safe use.

In the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. forces fired over 800,000 rounds of DU antitank weapons and used some in practice, scattering approximately 300 tons of DU over southern Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia in the form of dust, fragments, and unexploded rounds. Later, NATO forces fired DU antitank shells from A-10 aircraft over Kosovo. (See Steve Fetter and Frank von Hippel, "After the Dust Settles," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Nov.-Dec. 1999.) Some DU weapons were no doubt used to destroy the few Iraqi tanks that made it to the battlefield in the spring of 2003.

"Uranium" evokes associations with nuclear weapons and radioactivity. However, DU has low radioactivity and may or may not pose health and environmental threats on that count. Its major known hazards are related to its toxicity as a heavy metal. High doses or prolonged exposure may cause kidney damage. Evidence from animal studies suggests it may be associated with cancer and immune or reproductive disorders.

While nothing in current scientific understanding gives credence to claims that DU weapons are "nuclear" weapons or mini-Chernobyls, with similar devastating effects, there is plenty of evidence that DU is at least as dangerous as lead. You would not want to live in a neighborhood where lead shells had fallen, exploded, and contaminated the soil, yet many children in Iraq, Kosovo, and perhaps Afghanistan have played in DU-contaminated dirt or destroyed tanks. Other potential victims are soldiers exposed to DU-laced dust or wounded by DU fragments, and cleanup crews removing contaminated tanks or soil.

This is all we know about DU use and side effects. Compared to the little that is known, the unknowns are huge, including how extensively these weapons pollute battlefields, the exact effects of low-level radiation, or any of DU's long-term health effects in humans. The science is still evolving. We do not know and may never know what role, if any, DU plays in post-war health problems in soldiers and civilians.

But depleted uranium is an unknown quantity, and recent wars have produced mysterious clusters of side effects. Many Gulf War veterans are suffering from unexplained illness. A number of European soldiers developed leukemia and other chronic illnesses after the Balkan War, and investigations of possible Balkan War and Afghan War syndromes are now under way. The search for a cause for these ailments is understandable. Unfortunately, some claims about both the immediate and long-term damage power of DU weapons have been exaggerated. (See Dan Fahey, "Science or Science Fiction: Fact, Myth, and Propaganda in the Debate over Depleted Uranium Weapons," March 12, 2003.

We should not create certainty where it does not exist. Post-war maladies may be linked to one poison or many poisons, or the culprit may be war itself. The Medact report is agnostic on DU weapons but describes plenty of obvious secondary causes of death, disease, and distress following war: bad water, bad food, poisoned air, stress, refugee movements, the trauma of witnessing and participating in destruction.

Distortions aside, the side-effects arguments about DU weapons are getting through. Given what is known and unknown about DU weapons, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have backed away from these munitions, in the latter case citing environmental threats "real or perceived." In 2002, Britain reverted to ordering conventional tungsten-tipped weapons. Greece has taken DU weapons out of its inventory. A U.N. body has called for DU weapons to be outlawed under the Geneva Convention.

These weapons are, after all, the ultimate side effect. They are fashioned from the enormous quantities of useful poisons leftover from the Cold War era of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. That era is not over. The poison scattered by these weapons, and all the collateral damage described in the Medact report, prove that wars do not end when the fighting stops. Wars and the technologies of war have unintended consequences. If we do not stop this business, all of us are potential "collateral damage."


  IV. Birds, Kids, And Pesticides TOP
By Carolyn Raffensperger

Michael Lerner, the founder of Commonweal, an organization that is best known for its work with people with breast cancer, said that the one thing he has discovered about people living with a life-threatening illness is that it is a teachable moment. He thought that a time of war might be a teachable moment as well.

I've wondered whether that is true. I wonder if it is only hardening my position, rather than teaching me -- or anybody else-- anything.

I raise this question because my topic, pesticides, is a technology used in peace times derived from war technologies. What, if anything, might we learn in this teachable moment? Have we learned anything from other wars?

Mary Oliver, the poet, writes,

"The world offers itself to your imagination, Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -- Over and over announcing your place in the family of things."

What calls to our imagination? How are we learning about our place in the family of things? And when we understand our place in the family of things, then can we answer the architect Bill McDonough's marvelous question, "How do we love all the children of all species for all time?" Could it be that war and, derivatively, the technologies of war might teach us about this the way that cancer becomes a teachable moment?If we cannot learn from war, more has been maimed and killed than the thousands of children and soldiers in Iraq.

One theory behind the high incidence of prostate cancer in North Dakota is that the widespread use of pesticides in that farm state may be partly responsible. When I brought my husband home from cancer surgery three years ago, I discovered that North Dakota had approved an avicide designed to kill yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds because they eat too many of the farmers' sunflowers -- the ones you put on your salad at the salad bar.

This wanton act of the state echoed the story of Hernando Cortez's conquest of Mexico City in 1519-20. Cortez marched into the city November 8, 1519. By all accounts Cortez and his soldiers were awed and delighted by the gardens, canals, and aviaries that filled the city. The aviaries in particular were incomparable. Nothing like the Mexican aviaries could be found in Paris or Venice.

But Cortez was not predisposed to value the beauty of the city or the hospitality of Montezuma and the Mexicans. By June 1520, according to Barry Lopez, "Cortes's psychological manipulation of Montezuma and a concomitant arrogance, greed, and disrespect on the part of the Spanish military force had become too much for the Mexicans, and they drove them out. Cortes, relentless and vengeful, returned to the Valley of Mexico eleven months later with a larger army and laid siege to the city. Canal by canal, garden by garden, home by home he destroyed what he had described to Charles V as 'the most beautiful city in the world.' On June 16, in a move calculated to humiliate and frighten the Mexican people, Cortes set fire to the aviaries." (Crossing Open Ground pg. 193-195)

Five hundred years after Cortez, Rachel Carson wrote about the technologies of war in her book Silent Spring. Her book was written as a response to the equivalent of burning the aviaries. DDT, a pesticide, had killed the birds in Olga Huckins' marsh. In Chapter 3 of Carson's book she begins by describing how these chemicals are now found in every corner of the earth and have contaminated the bodies of every living thing. She says, "All of this has come about because of the sudden rise and prodigious growth of an industry for the production of man-made or synthetic chemicals with insecticidal properties. This industry is a child of the Second World War. In the course of developing agents of chemical warfare, some of the chemicals created in the laboratory were found to be lethal to insects. The discovery did not come by chance: insects were widely used to test chemicals as agents of death for man."

It has been 40 years since Rachel wrote her book. Since Silent Spring we've learned ever more about the consequences of pesticides. There's an entire new scientific discipline examining endocrine disruptors that began with Theo Colborn's important book, Our Stolen Future. In it Colborn and her coauthors describe how these synthetic chemicals hijack the body's chemical messenger system. We are only now sorting out what this means for the immune system, reproductive system, neurological system.

Some of these problems disproportionately affect children -- cancer, depression, diabetes. In a recent statement drafted at an international conference on the environment and children's health, the signatories say that one quarter of the global burden of disease can be attributed to environmental factors. But over 40% of the environmental diseases fall on children under the age of five, even through that age group is only 10% of the world's population. Of these problems, developmental disabilities merit special attention because they have exceptional consequences in society. (See Schettler, "The Case for Ecological Medicine".)

While there are many environmental contaminants, pesticides deserve to be singled out because they are so ubiquitous in our homes, schools, farms, city parks. And they are designed to kill. Many of them are known to damage the nervous system and may be associated with the increase in learning disabilities and other neurological problems we are seeing today.

But how do we know? Why should we take action before we are certain? Don't we run the risk of shutting down the economy and being overrun with bugs, weeds, and rodents if we limit the use of pesticides?

Let me answer by posing a scientific riddle. Ask,"When would I take action?" given this scenario:

In rodent studies, single doses of an organophosphate pesticide on day 10 of life caused permanent changes in brain structure and resulted in hyperactivity and learning problems in the animals as adults. Developmental processes in the rodent brain on day 10 of life are comparable to those in the human fetal brain during the third trimester of pregnancy.

A study of pesticide metabolite residues in the meconium (first stool) of newborns shows virtually universal exposure to organophosphates during in utero development. This tells us that mom has been exposed to an organophosphate. It has crossed the placenta and now the baby is excreting it in the first poop after birth. Animal studies lead to the prediction that the human brain is likely to be particularly susceptible to impairment from organophosphate exposures during the third trimester of pregnancy.(1,2)

Some would argue that we need to wait until this generation of universally exposed children grows up so we can tell whether this damage is related to organophosphate chemicals. This is the position of people who argue that you need a high level of certainty before taking any action to manage risk.

Some people, including me, have argued for an entirely different approach. We don't think that you should wait until the damage has happened, then measure it and manage it. We argue that we have an ethical obligation to prevent harm even if the science is uncertain. This assumption is the backbone of the precautionary principle.

The Wingspread definition of the precautionary principle says it this way: "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 key scientific notion is that many matters of health are fraught with uncertainty. It is difficult for science to prove cause and effect. Consider the scientific detective story of how and whether tobacco causes cancer.

In 1945 Ochsner documented that the incidence of tobacco and cancer rises together. In 1950 Doll & Hill did a case-control study. Three years later, in 1953, Wynde demonstrated that tar causes cancer in mice. A year later follow-up studies showed an association, and that greater exposure equaled greater risk. But it wasn't until the 1990s that we had the actual biological mechanism(s) described. Proving causation is hard. How many people died unnecessarily between 1945 and the 1990s, when we arrived at some certainty around the role of tobacco in causing cancer? Wouldn't it have been wiser to use the evidence available and begin taking precautionary action?

When will we know enough about pesticides to prevent our children or pregnant mothers from being exposed to them?

I suspect that if we apply the precautionary principle to the technologies of war we will approach them in a fundamentally different way. At the same conference at which Michael Lerner proposed that this was a teachable moment, the great writer Terry Tempest Williams described her response to the precautionary principle. She and her family are downwinders, people exposed to the radiation from nuclear bombs tested in Utah. She said that all of these years she felt that she had to prove that all the cancer, all the death, was related to the bomb testing -- the burden was on her to prove it. But the precautionary principle both shifted the burden and gave her an argument for preventing similar damage in future generations. Terry said the precautionary principle was "restraint in the name of reverence."

Now that I live in Iowa, I avoid travel in April. I stay home to watch migrating birds. As Henry David Thoreau said in his journal for March 31, 1852, "God did not make this world in jest; no, nor in indifference. These migrating sparrows all bear messages that concern my life."

What might these messages be? Caroline Casey says, "One definition of what it is to be human is to discern the pattern of Evolutionary Intelligence (the liveliest possibilities available at any moment), and offer ourselves to that." Caroline invites us to leave exile and rejoin Creation in a collaborative call and response, to "live in cavorting cahoots with the wolves, coyotes, asparagus, galaxies and the bacteria in the forest."

I think this is the not only the world offering itself to our imagination, but us offering ourselves to the world's imagination. It is joining the family of things. No pesticides in the circle of cavorting cahoots. No nuclear bombs in the Creation. Just healthy kids. Just living, thriving, singing birds. Just us, leaving the exile of war and destruction technologies. Perhaps what we have to learn in this teachable moment is what our place is in the family of things.

Adapted from an April 12 keynote address to the Lawn and Garden Fair, University of Northern Iowa.