The Precautionary Principle

By Shawn Dell Joyce

May 6, 2014 6 min read

"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 on the Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle stems from the German word "Vorsorgeprinzip," which means "fore-caring." It is a willingness to take action in advance of scientific proof or hard evidence on the grounds that further delay would prove to be too costly to society, nature and future generations.

Sometimes if we wait for scientific certainty, it is too late, and the damage is irreversible. Think back to the link between smoking and lung cancer. In the 20-year gap between when scientists first began to suspect smoking as a cause of lung cancer and when they were finally able to link it to lung cancer scientifically, millions of healthy people developed cancer and died. Some people realized the risk and stopped smoking without waiting for doctors' orders. These people wisely exercised the Precautionary Principle.

Another part of the Precautionary Principle is, "The proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof." That is the opposite of most of our environmental policies. Policymakers assume that ecosystems can absorb a certain amount of contamination and allow polluters free rein to pollute until scientists prove that damage is done and protective action needs to be taken.

"Instead of asking the basic risk-assessment question -- 'How much harm is allowable?' -- the precautionary approach asks, 'How little harm is possible?'" notes Peter Montague in "The Precautionary Principle in the Real World."

If we were to adopt the Precautionary Principle as a basis of environmental legislation in our country, it would shift the burden of proof to the shoulders of those who profit from pollution. For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District adopted the Precautionary Principle to limit pesticide use in schools, citing possible damage to children's development. Many other school districts across the nation have followed suit. They are not waiting for scientists to establish a link between pesticide use and neurotoxins' inhibiting brain development. They are taking preventive action now as stewards of the next generation.

Other countries have adopted the Precautionary Principle as a guideline for environmental policy. The European Union has incorporated the Precautionary Principle and is requiring all chemicals to be tested for their effects on health and the environment. It puts the burden on chemical manufacturers to demonstrate that their products are safe. And it gives government immediate authority to regulate substances that show problems.

Even major corporations have adopted the principle voluntarily in an effort to avoid harm. In 2001, Verizon Wireless sent a brochure to its U.S. cellphone customers describing the potential harm to children from radio frequencies emitted by the phones. Verizon suggested that parents adopt the Precautionary Principle and limit children's use of cellphones.

So how can we apply the Precautionary Principle to our own communities?

Carolyn Raffensperger, in "Environmental Vision and Action in Municipalities," suggests that you start with a vision for your community. For example, "What would it take to make this the best place to mature?"

Then look at the threats. For example, two environmental health reports on threats to healthy aging found that asthma, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer's disease all have environmental contributors. "Local action," Raffensperger writes, "such as increasing the walkability of a town or guaranteeing access to nature has the enormous potential to help people live healthier lives and cut down on the costs to society and families of sick people, particularly the elderly." Applying the Precautionary Principle to the town's master plan would result in adding more sidewalks to encourage walkability, creating more green spaces and parks, limiting emissions of idling vehicles, and rerouting heavy trucks away from populated areas.

Raffensperger points out that many of the problems we face in our communities are interrelated. For example, the absence of sidewalks contributes to obesity and increases the use of cars, consequently increasing air pollution and the likelihood of climate change. Applying the Precautionary Principle to our decision-making process at a governmental level would address multiple problems with a common solution.

To incorporate the Precautionary Principle approach to decision-making, we need to adopt these theories, which the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has adopted:

"1. Anticipatory Action: There is a duty to take action to prevent harm. ...

"2. Right to Know: The community has a right to know complete and accurate information on potential human health and environmental (threats). ... The burden to supply this information lies with the proponent, not with the general public.

"3. Alternatives Assessment: An obligation exists to examine a full range of alternatives and select the alternative with the least potential impact on human health and the environment including the alternative of doing nothing.

"4. Full Cost Accounting:" We must consider all costs, including those that will be paid by future generations.

"5. Participatory Decision Process: Decisions applying the Precautionary Principle must be" democratic and engage all affected parties.

Shawn Dell Joyce is the founder of the Wallkill River School of Art, a nonprofit artists collective with an environmental mission to save open spaces and small farms.

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