The Precautionary Principle

Laura Shea, Prevention First coalition

The idea of precaution is not new. It is expressed daily: "Better safe than sorry", "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure", and the Hippocratic imperative, "First, do no harm". Precaution has always guided thinking individuals who wish to prevent harm and illness to themselves and their loved ones. At the societal level, precautionary measures have been the basis of public health measures keep populations disease-free through access to clean air, clean water and healthy food. A clean, toxic-free environment is critical in safeguarding health.

The Precautionary Principle states that when there are reasonable scientific grounds for believing a process or product may be unsafe, precautionary measures should be taken even if cause-and-effect relationships have not been established scientifically. This places the burden of demonstrating safety on the innovator or manufacturer, not on the public.1

In other words, if there is reason to think that a new technology or chemical may be harmful, we don't need to wait for definitive proof before we act to protect ourselves. The proponents must bear the responsibility of proving that their innovations are harmless and victims should not have to take on the nearly impossible task of proving, after the fact, that a product or activity was responsible.

Risk management: a flawed approach to protecting health

Existing regulations based on a risk management approach have failed to adequately protect public health and the environment. Over the last several decades, policy makers have relied on a 'risk analysis model' when assessing new technologies and/or chemicals with a potential effect on human health and the environment. The risk assessors (scientists) attempt to calculate the mathematical likelihood that a new chemical, for example, will harm the public, while the risk managers (policy makers) decide whether or not the amount of estimated risk is acceptable and to what degree, if at all, it should be regulated.2 The guiding principle for this model is, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."

A key problem with risk analysis is its demonstrated inability to assess and predict the effects of new technologies and chemicals. As one critic has noted, "Whatever can't be quantified falls out of the risk analyst's equations and so, in the absence of proven, measurable harm, technologies are simply allowed to move forward."3 Moreover, concerned experts and activists argue that risk management is too often used to justify a hazardous but profit-generating activity and to quantify 'acceptable' levels of disease or illness. The report, "Late Lessons from Early warnings: the Precautionary Principle 1896-2000"(European Environment Agency) is one of several recent publications that document specific cases involving radiation, benzene, asbestos, DES, etc., where regulatory weaknesses and inadequacies within the risk model proved costly to human health and the environment. In contrast, fundamental to the precautionary approach to regulation includes the need to consider both specialist and lay knowledge in policy decision-making; to keep regulation in the hands of disinterested parties; to assess and justify how much a given practice or product is needed; and to thoroughly evaluate alternatives.4

Replacing risk analysis: the need for standards

Advocates of the Precautionary Principle are fighting to replace the risk paradigm with standards that protect public health and the environment from potential harm. Many activities of everyday life subject us to chemicals that we, as individuals, cannot control—among them, chemicals in pesticides, dioxin, second-hand smoke, and car exhausts. Ecologist and cancer activist Sandra Steingraber links rising cancer rates with the introduction and rapid proliferation of chemicals introduced since 1945.5 It is estimated that approximately 85,000 synthetic chemicals are in use today and that 2,000 more are added each year. Less than one in ten has been tested for toxicity to humans and other life forms.

Our understanding of the environmental links to diseases like breast cancer is increasing daily.6 Research scientists studying these links recently issued a call to action ... "Public policy demands proactive measures to prevent harm rather than waiting for definitive scientific proof of the causes of breast cancer. At the very least, the science to date is very compelling and calls for additional, and precautionary action to reduce suspect exposures."7

This is support for the goals of breast cancer activists who know that the only way to end the epidemic is to implement a solid strategy of primary prevention by identifying and eliminating causes of the disease. To date, less than 5% of money raised in the name of breast cancer is spent on true prevention: most of the money is spent on chemoprevention. Too often, drugs promoted for prevention turn out to cause such side effects as to constitute disease substitution, appearing to reduce the risk of one problem but actually increasing the risk of another. Cancer research is very drug-focused because that is where the profits are. But what is good for science and industry is not necessarily in the best interest of public health.

As a guiding principle in making decisions about the safety of new technologies and chemicals, the Precautionary Principle is an important antidote to 'business as usual.' It keeps reminding us that human and environmental health and safety are paramount.

References: Batt, Sharon. "Preventing Disease: Are Pills the Answer?" 2002 /en/documents/doc_index2.html


Pollan, Michael. "The Precautionary Principle", New York Times, Dec. 9, 2001.

European Environment Agency. 2000. "Late lessons from early warnings: The precautionary principle 1896-2000"

Steingraber, Sandra. "Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment", Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley, 1997.

The Breast Cancer Fund and Breast Cancer Action (Nancy Evans, ed.) 2002. "State of the Evidence: What is the connection Between Chemicals and Breast Cancer?" Available in BCAM library.

Davis, D. L., Montira J. Pogsiri and Mary Wolff, "Recent Development on the Avoidable Causes of Breast Cancer".


For more information on the Precautionary Principle visit:
Centre for Children's Health and the Environment
Heath Care Without Harm
Science Environmental Health Network

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