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9-Misc: U.S. discussion on Precautionary Principle

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TITLE:  Should threat of harm prompt action even if risk is uncertain?
SOURCE: San Diego Union Tribune, USA, by Scott LaFee
DATE:   Apr 16, 2003

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Should threat of harm prompt action even if risk is uncertain?

At first glance, the precautionary principle sounds an awful lot like something 
your mom might say: If something seems dangerous, don't do it. Back off. Be 
careful. Look before you leap. Better safe than sorry.

The precautionary principle would appear to be compellingly commonsensical. If 
your arm hurts when you pinch it, stop pinching it. If you're dumping chemicals 
into a river and fish are dying, stop dumping.

But what if you can't actually prove  with any scientific certainty  that the 
chemicals are indeed culpable? What if those chemicals are the unavoidable 
byproducts of producing something undeniably beneficial, such as food or 

Precautionary principle proponents don't blink. If an activity threatens harm to 
the environment or human health, they say, it should be stopped or changed, even 
if causative proof of that harm isn't fully established.

"We understand the difficulty of tracking cause and effect. We understand the 
limitations of science," said Carolyn Raffensperger, executive director of 
Science and Environmental Health Network, a think tank based in Ames, Iowa, and 
major proponent of the principle.

"The problem is that many environmental consequences, intended or not, are 
immediate. Change is happening faster than ever, and we can't always wait for 
the scientific proof. We think that if you can prevent a problem by taking 
precautionary action, you should do so, even if the evidence isn't all there." 
To which critics of the precautionary principle howl in dismay. Such thinking, 
they assert, ignores the complexities of real world life and defies more than 
300 years of scientific reasoning. The principle, critics contend, plays upon 
unfounded emotions and fears, not empirical fact.

"The principle is anti-science because it says you should make decisions based 
not on what you know, but what you don't know," said Elizabeth Whelan, president 
of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a consumer advocacy group 
headquartered in New York City. "It says, 'We don't understand everything out 
there, so let's err on the side of caution.' On the face of it, that sounds 
fine. But if you followed that philosophy in life, nothing would get done."

The case for

Look around, said Raffensperger. Hazards to your health and the environment 
abound. Sometimes the threat and its source are obvious and the remedy clear: 
Cars produce smog. Smog causes respiratory problems. Exhaust emissions from cars 
need to be reduced, if not eliminated.

But often the causal chain is more complicated, harder to follow. There may be 
conflicting interests. It may not be possible, using existing scientific 
standards, to make a conclusive connection, and thus compel action.

The precautionary principle was originally devised as a legal concept by the 
environmental movement of the 1970s. Over time, it has increasingly been 
incorporated into law, particularly in Europe and in various international 
treaties, from the Maastricht Treaty establishing the European Union to the 
United Nations' Rio Declaration on Environment and Development in 1992. For 
nations like Sweden and Denmark, the principle is an integral part of their 
national policy on the environmental and public health.

The precautionary principle is considerably less influential in the United 
States. It is currently not expressly mentioned in federal law or policy, though 
at the state and local level, a number of government entities are beginning to 
consider it. For example, officials within the California Environmental 
Protection Agency are currently debating whether to overtly incorporate the 
precautionary principle into regulations likely to affect future legislation and 

"It's a big, contentious issue," said Diane Takvorian, executive director of the 
San Diego-based Environmental Health Coalition, who is involved in the process.

The argument, of course, boils down to what constitutes proof and an undeniable 
call for action.

"Tobacco is an obvious example," said Raffensperger. "We knew in the 1940s that 
tobacco was deadly. We knew about the deleterious effects of tar and nicotine. 
We had all of this information and yet nobody could prove in a court of law that 
tobacco caused lung cancer because science hadn't yet found the biological 
mechanism, the precise explanation of how smoking caused disease.

"As a result, the tobacco industry was able to deny linkage for years by 
insisting there wasn't conclusive proof, that more studies were needed. And all 
the while, people smoked and died."

The precautionary principle, Raffensperger said, provides a remedy. It urges 
action  or inaction  when logic suggests either is the prudent course.

For example, groups representing veterans of the first Persian Gulf war contend 
that tens of thousands of U.S. troops were exposed, often unknowingly and 
without adequate protection, to chemical warfare agents, radioactive materials 
and various toxins during service in Kuwait and Iraq in 1990 and 1991.

Many of these soldiers have since reported an assortment of maladies, broadly 
dubbed "the Gulf War syndrome." Veterans groups have demanded aggressive, 
comprehensive action, both in expanded health care and in reducing any 
continuing threat to servicemen in the region. The reaction from U.S. military 
and political leaders has been mixed. Despite numerous studies, independent and 
government researchers say they have not found conclusive evidence that military 
service in the Gulf is linked to the various illnesses.

The ongoing debate maddens principle proponents.

"I think we're in a unique time," said Raffensperger. "Events like the anthrax 
scare and SARS are showing us that we need to learn how to better connect the 
dots. Why are animal and plant species dying off? Why are rates of learning 
disabilities, asthma and some kinds of cancer rising? We can't necessarily wait 
for science in all its splendor to prove connections after the fact."

Yet, Raffensperger and others insist the precautionary principle promotes 
science by encouraging the search for alternatives to real or perceived harmful 
practices and products.

"To people who say we're anti-science, I say baloney. Germany has used the 
principle to force technological innovation in its most polluting industries. 
Why not use science to help us evaluate lots of alternatives? Why remain stuck 
in a 'don't ask, don't tell about harm' approach until it's too late?

"We are not afraid of the unknown, but we do want to reduce the unknown by 
getting people to broaden their thinking beyond the very narrow constraints of 
scientific cause-and-effect. We're not trying to push the clock back on science. 
We're trying to help it catch up."

Takvorian, a long-time advocate of the precautionary principle, offers this case 
in point:

For more than a decade, she said, local environmentalists had complained that a 
chrome-plating operation in Barrio Logan was releasing dangerous amounts of 
toxic chemicals into the surrounding residential neighborhood. As a result, they 
said, children in the area experienced abnormally high levels of asthma and 
other ailments.

"Common sense tells you that if you spew a known carcinogen onto homes right 
next door, bad things will happen," said Takvorian.

Takvorian and others repeatedly asked for local or state officials to conduct 
scientific tests of the facility, but nothing happened for years. Finally, the 
San Diego County Air Pollution Control District arranged a monitoring program to 
measure airborne levels of Chromium 6, a known carcinogen. Officials found 
dangerous amounts, said Takvorian, but the levels exceeded all established risk 
models, leaving the researchers unable to draw scientifically valid conclusions. 
It took another monitoring effort l