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Synthesis/Regeneration 7-8   (Summer 1995)

Precautionary Principle:
The "Better Safe than Sorry" Approach

by Joan D'Argo, Greenpeace

For several decades now, industry with profit-motivated science as its one and only god, has dictated most—if not all—public policy decisions regarding human and environmental health. More often than not, it is industry-paid scientists who have the last and only word.

Despite the fact that testimony and research by grassroots groups have abundantly documented the impact of poisonous chemicals on human health, we have seen little action aimed at real prevention from public policy decision-makers. Their rule of thumb is as follows: Action is only taken if conclusive scientific proof of harm is shown. Scientific proof of harm is defined as irrefutable evidence, beyond a doubt, of a cause-effect link between individual chemicals and disease. It's a policy that forsakes the rights of people for rights of the chemical industry.

This regulatory framework is the very approach that has caused the health crisis we face today. All too often, such proof comes after the fact, after the damage has already been done. It's the approach that claims that the ecosystem has the capacity to assimilate or absorb "safe" levels, even minute levels, of persistent toxic substances.

The Precautionary Principle places the burden of proof on those would cause pollution rather than on those who would prevent it.

Only within the last ten years has a new policy emerged. Called the "Precautionary Principle," this new policy has arisen from the realization that we are on the brink of causing irreversible damage to the environment and our health. Industrial practices that rely on back-end thinking, assume that if we can just ratchet down the amount of poison we're dumping into the environment and our bodies, then the environment and our bodies can handle it. This is an irresponsible and dangerous approach, especially if the substances are persistent, toxic and foreign to nature.

The Precautionary Principle acknowledges that if further environmental damage is to be minimized, eliminated and ultimately reversed, precaution and prevention must be the overriding principles of policy. Call it the "Better Safe than Sorry Principle" or the "No Regrets Policy." The Precautionary Principle requires that if we err, we err on the side of caution and put health first.

Originally spearheaded by Germany and the Nordic countries, it is now receiving worldwide recognition. Today, more than 15 international governmental foras including the North Sea Ministerial Conferences, UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) Governing Council, Paris and Oslo Commissions, the Barcelona Convention, the EC (European Community) Parliament and of course the International Joint Commission (IJC) on the Great Lakes have recognized the wisdom of the Precautionary Principle and called for its immediate implementation.

The Precautionary Principle states that environmental decisions should be based on an approach that does not wait for strict proof before taking action. It calls for anticipatory action in the absence of complete proof of harm. The Precautionary Principle places the burden of proof on those would cause pollution rather than on those who would prevent it.

Rather than our health and our children's health being sacrificed for industry greed, the Precautionary Principle states that it is the polluters who must prove that their products or manufacturing processes are not likely to harm the environment or human health. Anything less, would be using the environment and our bodies as a large scale laboratory to gather evidence of harm, a morally unacceptable principle.

As you might imagine, the Precautionary Principle is controversial, and has been interpreted as being in conflict with the aims and methods of science, specifically because the need for action is defined as more than just proving a cause-effect link.

As the IJC's Science Advisory Board stated:

The need for more than cause-effect science does not mean abandonment of science. Far from it...We recommend that policy-makers adopt a weight of evidence approach to human health. One assembles all the evidence: adverse effects on wildlife, adverse effects on humans; adverse effects on ecosystems and a fundamental understanding of how biological systems, such as the reproductive system can be harmed. As in solving a difficult crime, the weight of evidence together builds a basis for judgment. The weight of evidence approach, above all, requires a willingness to act on an integrated body of evidence rather than to wait for irrefutable evidence of a cause-effect link.

Industry would have us assess the toxicity of each and every organochlorine on a case by case basis. This is an unscientific approach, for which we have neither time nor resources.

As we sort out who has what say in the decision-making process, i.e., who holds the power, evidence continues to build about the hazards caused by dioxin and other chlorine-based synthetic chemicals. We do not know what all the effects of human exposure will be over many years. In fact, we may never know.

There is enough available evidence today to justify action to protect human health. We need to begin an immediate phase-out of the entire class of organochlorines. Industry would have us assess the toxicity of each and every organochlorine on a case by case basis. This is an unscientific approach, for which we have neither time nor resources.

Several prestigious governmental bodies have called for immediate action. In the words of the IJC: "There is sufficient evidence NOW to infer a real risk of serious impacts in humans. The questions then become: What, if any, risks of injury are we as individuals and as a society willing to accept? How long can we afford to wait before we act? Why take any risk of having such potentially devastating results?"

Through the use of the Precautionary Principle, we have the tools to take action today to prevent any new cases like Times Beach, or Love Canal, or East Liverpool, Ohio, or Columbus, Ohio, or Jacksonville, Arkansas, or the southeast side of Chicago, from ever occurring again.

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