The Precautionary Principle   Leave a comment

The Precautionary Principle (PP) has been around for a long time, but many people have never heard of it or don’t really know what it means. I believe very strongly in the PP, so I’m going to take a stab at presenting it. The plain English translation for the PP would be “better safe than sorry”. The PP means that if there is a possibility of causing harm, and/or scientific uncertainty, than the burden of proof lies on those who create the activity/material that may cause harm rather than those who would potentially be harmed. Think of the PP as an offshoot of the moral law “Do No Harm”. Currently, the burden of proof is almost always on the victims.

It is appropriate in our English legal system for the burden of proof to be on the prosecution (the representative of the victims) and not the defendant (who allegedly caused harm). This protects people from false accusations. Also, there is no way to run tests or models and predict with any degree of accuracy whether or not someone may do something illegal in the future. How could you prove that someone is a murderer if there is no murder? But note that our legal system does employs the PP when it comes to sentencing: a guilty verdict indicates that the person does present a danger to society and as a result the person is placed in prison to protect the general public from future harm.

It is not appropriate in the case of new developments for the burden of proof to always be on the victims. It is significantly easier and cheaper to run models to determine the floodplain of a 100-year storm (a storm of such severity that it would not be expected to occur more than once every hundred years) and limit building within that floodplain, then to clean up the mess when the 100-year storm hits and destroys homes. It is significantly easier to run lab tests to determine the fate of a new chemical in the environment (eg. will it end up in air, water, or oil? will it accumulate in plant and animal tissue?) and to determine potential health effects of exposure, then to figure out the health effects in the general population where there are millions of other variables that complicate the analysis.

The development of chemicals is where I see the PP pushed the most by advocates. The basic idea would be that chemical companies must conduct testing BEFORE a new chemical is put into general use, rather than AFTER it is linked to problems in the general population. The chemical industry fights back by saying that this would stifle innovation. I don’t see how that would be. It doesn’t put a stop to new developments, it just slows down the pace of the application of those new developments. Pharmaceutical companies have to do studies before a new medicine is approved and that doesn’t seem to have stifled innovation in the industry. Not that I am advocating using the same system that we use for new drugs; there are way too many flaws in that system! The PP involves looking at more than one facet of a new development before putting it into use. After all, new developments aren’t made in vacuums, and the “side effects” are usually the problem.

The way I see it the PP would make it SIGNIFICANTLY easier to make educated, informed decisions. The amount of effort that I have to put forward currently to living a life free from known or suspected toxins/mutagens/irritants/etc is frustrating because I have to make decisions based on sketchy, incomplete data. When there is a suspicion I try to follow the PP and remove the offender from my life until I know that it is safe, but that means doing a lot of label reading, internet searching, and plumbing the shallow depths of my scientific knowledge. And there are numerous situations where I find that I cannot avoid something questionable because it is ubiquitous. I absolutely understand why most people aren’t willing to put forth this much effort, but I believe that everyone has a right to live an uncontaminated life anyway.

Posted March 14, 2010 by mayakey in environment, health

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