.         ---February 19, 1998---                    .
.                HEADLINES:                           .
.      THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE                  .

.               ==========                           .
.   Environmental Research Foundation               .
.   P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD  21403              .
.  Fax (410) 263-8944; Internet: erf@rachel.org       

A new principle for guiding human activities, to prevent harm 
to the environment and to human health, has been emerging during
 the past 10 years.  It is called the "principle of  precautionary 
action" or the "precautionary principle" for short. (See REHW #257,
 #284, #319, #363, #378, #423, #539, #540.)

An international group of scientists, government officials, lawyers, 
and labor and grass-roots environmental activists met January 23-25
at Wingspread in Racine, Wisconsin to define and discuss the 
precautionary principle.[1]  After meeting for two days, the group 
issued the following consensus statement:

Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle

"The release and use of toxic substances, the exploitation of 
resources, and physical alterations of the environment have had 
substantial unintended consequences affecting human health and 
the environment.  Some of these concerns are high rates of learning 
deficiencies, asthma, cancer, birth defects and species extinctions,
along with global climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion and 
worldwide contamination with toxic substances
and nuclear materials."

"We believe existing environmental regulations and other decisions,
 particularly those based on risk assessment, have failed to protect
  adequately human health and the environment --the larger system of
 which humans are but a part."

"We believe there is compelling evidence that damage to humans and 
the worldwide environment is of such magnitude and seriousness that
new principles for conducting human activities are necessary.

"While we realize that human activities may involve hazards, people 
must proceed more carefully than has been the case in recent history.
Corporations, government entities, organizations, communities, 
scientists and other individuals must adopt a precautionary approach
to all human endeavors.

"Therefore, it is necessary to implement the Precautionary Principle:
 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.
In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, 
should bear the burden of proof.

"The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, 
informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties.
 It must also involve an examination of the full
range of alternatives, including no action." [End of statement.]

Thus, as formulated here, the principle of precautionary action has 4 parts:

1. People have a duty to take anticipatory action to prevent harm. 
(As one participant at the Wingspread meeting summarized the essence 
of the precautionary principle, "If you havereasonable suspicion that 
something bad might be going to happen, you have an obligation to try
 to stop it.")

2. The burden of proof of harmlessness of a new technology, process, 
activity, or chemical lies with the proponents, not with the general

3. Before using a new technology, process, or chemical, or starting 
a new activity, people have an obligation to examine "a full range of 
alternatives" including the alternative of doing nothing.

4. Decisions applying the precautionary principle must be "open, 
informed, and democratic" and "must include affected parties."

The precautionary principle is not really new.  The essence of the 
principle is captured in common-sense aphorisms such as "An ounce of
prevention is worth a pound of cure," "Better safe than sorry," and 
"Look before you leap."  However, environmental policy in the U.S. 
and Europe for the past 70 years has been guided by entirely different 
perhaps best reflected in the aphorisms, "Nothing ventured, nothing
gained" and, "Let the devil take the hindmost."

Participants at the Wingspread meeting came from the U.S.,Canada, 
Germany, Britain, and Sweden.

"Precaution is natural in our lives," said Gordon Durnil, a lawyer from
Indianapolis, Indiana and author of THE MAKING OF A CONSERVATIVE
 ENVIRONMENTALIST.  (See REHW #453.)  "From my Perspective as a 
conservative Republican, this is a conservative principle."  During 
the Bush administration, Durnil served as chairperson of the
 International Joint Commission (IJC), established by treaty to
 resolve Great Lakes problems between the United States and Canada.
See REHW #284, #378, #505.)

Joel Tickner of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, said 
"Current decision-making approaches ask, 'How safe is safe?  What
level of risk is acceptable?  How much contamination can a human
or ecosystem assimilate without showing any obvious adverse effects?'
The approach stemming from the precautionary principle asks a different 
set of questions: 'How much contamination can be avoided while still 
maintaining necessary values?  What are the alternatives to this product 
or activity that achieve the desired goal?  Does society need this 
activity in the first place?'"[2]

Participants noted that 

Carolyn Raffensperger, coordinator of the Science and Environmental 
Health Network (SEHN) says, "The role of science [in decision-making] 
is essential. But the public must be fully involved. Informed consent
 is just as essential."

Author Sandra Steingraber (see REHW #565) told the Wingspread meeting 
that the precautionary principle suggests certain kinds of arguments
 that grass-roots activists might use at the local level:

1) When toxic chemicals enter our bodies --or the bodies of our 
children --without our informed consent, it is a toxic trespass.

Such a trespass is wrong and almost everyone recognizes that it 
is wrong.

2) A recent study by the Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention 
concluded that only 2% of cancer deaths are caused by industrial 
toxins released into the environment.  Steingraber points out that, 
if we accept such an estimate at face value, this 2% represents the
painful deaths of nearly 11,000 individuals each year in the U.S.
alone --the annual equivalent of wiping out a small city, thirty 
funerals every day.  And these deaths represent a form of homicide.
Such homicides are wrong and almost everyone recognizes that they
are wrong.

3) We all have a fundamental human right to enjoy our environment
 free of fear.  Those who put toxics chemicals into the environment
 --whether as wastes or as products --deny us this human right. 
 Almost everyone recognizes that such a denial of human rights is wrong.

At the policy level, Wingspread participant Robert Costanza of the 
University of Maryland has suggested an "assurance bond" --which he
 has dubbed the "4P approach to scientific uncertainty." (See REHW #510.)
 The "4P" stands for "the precautionary polluter pays principle."
 Using the "4P" approach, before a new technology, process or chemical 
could be introduced, the worst-case damage would be estimated in dollar 
terms.  Then the proponent of the new activity would be required to post
a bond for the full amount before startup.

Such "assurance bonds" are common in the construction industry today, 
to assure that a job will be completed on schedule.  A "4P" bond would 
effectively shift the burden of proof onto the proponent --if 
harmlessness could be shown as time passed, some or all of the bond
 would be returned (with interest). A "4P" bond would also give the 
proponent powerful financial incentives to reduce the worst case
 damages by, for example, adopting intrinsically less-damaging 
alternatives. The "4P" bond would also give the proponent a financial
incentive to continually examine the effects of the new activity
 --if damages could be shown to be less than the worst-case estimate, 
part of the bond could be returned (with interest) but the burden of
 proof for such a showing would remain with the proponent.

It seems unlikely that the precautionary principle will replace the 
risk assessment approach to environmental protection in the
U.S. any time soon.  Opposition from the chemical industry alone 
would probably be sufficient to prevent that.  A number of
advisors to the chemical industry have called the precautionary 
principle unscientific and dangerous.  For example, Jack Mongoven
 of the public relations firm MBD (Mongoven, Biscoe and Duchin in 
Washington, D.C.), has advised the chemical industry to "mobilize 
science against the precautionary principle." (See REHW #496.)

Mr. Mongoven says the precautionary principle is antagonistic to
 science, has its origins in instinct and feeling, and "threatens
 the entire chemical industry."[2]

True, the precautionary principle does shift the burden of proof for 
harmlessness onto the producers of toxic chemicals.  Most people readily 
accept such a shift in the case of the pharmaceutical industry, which
 must show safety and efficacy before marketing a new drug.  The 
rationale for placing such requirements on the drug corporations 
was that humans would be directly exposed to drugs, so safety had to
 be shown and the need for the new drug established.  Today we know 
that all landfills leak, incinerators don't fully destroy toxic 
chemicals, and humans are therefore exposed to low levels of 
essentially every industrial chemical released into commercial 
channels (whether as waste or as product).  Therefore, the rationale
 for U.S. pharmaceuticals policy would logically lead to the conclusion 
that all industrial chemicals should be treated the same as drugs: 
the burden of proof of harmlessness (and proof of need) should fall 
on the producer.

To assure that producers have confidence in their own estimates of 
harmlessness, the worst-case "4P" bond would serve nicely. 
(The 4P bond simply asks the chemical corporations claiming
 "no problem" to put their money where their mouths are.) If the 
producer's estimate of harmlessness turned out to be wrong, the large
bond would be forfeited to pay the incurred costs. Those who say they 
favor market-based solutions to environmental problems should warmly 
embrace such an efficient and fiscally-responsible precautionary proposal.
--Peter Montague(National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] Wingspread participants (affiliations are noted for identification 
purposes only): Nicholas Ashford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology;
 Katherine Barrett, University of British Columbia; Anita Bernstein,
 Chicago-Kent College of Law; Robert Costanza, University of Maryland; 
Pat Costner, Greenpeace; Carl Cranor, University of California, Riverside; 
Peter deFur,Virginia Commonwealth University; Gordon Durnil, attorney; Dr.
 Kenneth Geiser, Toxics Use Reduction Institute, University of Mass., 
Lowell; Dr. Andrew Jordan, Centre for Social and Economic Research on
 the Global Environment, University Of East Anglia, Britain; Andrew King, 
United Steelworkers of America, Canadian Office, Toronto, Canada; Frederick
 Kirschenmann, farmer; Stephen Lester, Center for Health, Environment and 
Justice; Sue Maret, Union Institute; Dr. Michael M'Gonigle, University of 
Victoria,British Columbia, Canada; Peter Montague, Environmental Research 
Foundation; John Peterson Myers, W. Alton Jones Foundation; Mary
O'Brien, environmental consultant; David Ozonoff, Boston University; 
Carolyn Raffensperger, Science and Environmental Health Network; Pamela 
Resor, Massachusetts House of Representatives; Florence Robinson, 
Louisiana Environmental Network; Ted Schettler, Physicians for Social
 Responsibility; Ted Smith, Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition; Klaus-Richard
 Sperling, Alfred-Wegener Institut, Hamburg, Germany; Sandra Steingraber,
 author; Diane Takvorian, Environmental Health Coalition; Joel Tickner, 
University of Mass., Lowell; Konrad von Moltke,Dartmouth College; Bo
 Wahlstrom, KEMI (National Chemical Inspectorate), Sweden; Jackie Warledo,
 Indigenous Environmental Network.

[2] Bette Hileman, "Precautionary Principle," CHEMICAL & ENGINEERING 
NEWS [C&EN] February 9, 1998, pgs. 16-18.

[3] Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention, "Harvard Report on Cancer
 Prevention," CANCER CAUSES AND CONTROL Vol. 7, Supplement 1 (1996),
 pgs. 3-59.

Descriptor terms:  precautionary principle; wingspread; regulation; 
meetings; wingspread statement on precaution; risk assessment; jack 
mongoven; mbd; chemical industry; gordon durnil;ken geiser; carolyn
 raffensperger; science and environmental health network; sehn; ijc;
joel tickner; sandra steingraber; harvard center for cancer prevention;
 robert costanza; 4p assurance bonding; assurance bonds; burden of
 proof; alternatives assessment; pharmaceuticals policy;

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