The Precautionary Principle

What is the Precautionary Principle?

When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken, even if a scientific cause and effect relationship has not yet been established.

The Problem

The places we live, work, play, learn and worship, the water we drink, and the food we eat contain toxic chemicals, radioactive materials, heavy metals, genetically altered organisms, and more. We know that many potentially toxic substances are stored in our bodies and passed on to our children.

We know very little about the toxicity of 75% of the most heavily used industrial chemicals. Of the 85,000 synthetic chemicals now in use, fewer than 10% have been tested for their effects on human health. These substances, in addition to chemical pesticides, are widely released in large quantities into our environment.

Yet we have good scientific evidence that these exposures are already affecting our health and the health of our children: cancer, asthma, learning disabilities, and other illnesses have been linked to environmental exposures, and the incidence of many other health problems is on the rise. In 1950, it was predicted that about 25% of all Americans would be diagnosed with cancer; by 1997 that figure had risen to 40%. Asthma’s prevalence is now doubling every 20 years. Rates of autism and attention deficit disorder also appear to be rising rapidly in children.

Releasing potentially harmful substances into our surroundings and food is legal and permitted by government authorities, even though we have an increasing understanding of how dangerous they really are.

Many laws and regulations require strong evidence or proof of a cause-effect link between each pollutant and its health effects before preventive actions are taken.

Science has so far been unable to assess the impact of multiple exposures: the daily toxic soup to which we are exposed, and the interactions and cumulative effects of these exposures. Many people are being harmed as we wait for science to be able to prove direct links between chemical exposure and illness.

The Precautionary Principle

What does it say?

The Precautionary Principle says that our first priority is protecting our health. It asserts our right to air, water, land and food that won’t hurt us. It says, “Better safe than sorry,” acknowledging that in our complex world, scientists often cannot predict what impact toxic exposures will have on our health. The Precautionary Principle calls for us to seek out the safest ways to accomplish our activities while recognizing the limits of our scientific knowledge.

What does it do?

It is a guiding principle for government officials, companies, and citizens to use in making decisions about potentially hazardous activities. It demands more rigorous, honest, and complete scientific analysis of possible hazards and alternatives. It encourages us to be both cost-effective and caring, by preventing harm before it happens, rather than by trying to cure illness or clean up pollution after they occur. It can protect our health in ways that current laws do not.

How will it help change things?

Incorporating the Precautionary Principle into laws, regulations, and policies would fundamentally change the way that environmental, land-use and health decisions are made, so that we can:

  • Take more health protective actions in the face of scientific uncertainty;
  • Select the safest alternative technologies and materials to meet our needs;
  • Require that producers, not the public, demonstrate that they have selected the safest alternative;
  • Fully involve the public in making democratic decisions regarding their lives and health;
  • Move closer to creating sustainable communities by preventing harm from the outset.

How is it already used?

The Precautionary Principle is already incorporated into many international environmental agreements and European environmental policies. The Principle is central to the “Rio Declaration,” an international agreement signed by the U.S. at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro. In concept, it is at the heart of many environmental policies based on clean production and pollution prevention.

Many polluting industries oppose the Precautionary Principle because it forces them to take responsibility for their actions and change business as usual. It’s time to move quickly to define how precaution should be integrated into laws and policies effectively implemented.

In the Bay Area

The Precautionary Principle has been adopted in San Francisco and incorporated into their purchasing ordinance. Berkeley recently adopted a resolution supporting the Principle.

In Marin

In July, 2003, Supervisors Cynthia Murray and Susan Adams wrote to their colleagues on the Marin County Board of Supervisors stating that Dr. Larry Meredith and Alex Hinds have been researching the Precautionary Principle as a first step in “understanding what implementation of the principle would look like in County operations.”

Supporters of Marin Breast Cancer Watch interested in assisting in implementing the Precautionary Principle.

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