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Precautionary PrincipleBetter Safe than Sorry:
Using the Precautionary Principle to Prevent Harm

by Vicki Wolf

Concerned about the increase in disease, declining natural resources and the rate at which some species are becoming extinct, a group of environmentalists, farmers, industry leaders and health care professionals explored solutions. In 1998, they gathered at Wingspread conference in Racine, Wisconsin and developed the precautionary principle as a guide toward preventing harm to the planet and to human health ( The precautionary principle states: "When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically." In other words, better safe than sorry – avoid exposing people and the environment to a chemical, product or process until it is proven to be safe. Throughout the history of industry, it has been the other way around – preventing exposure of people and the environment to possible harm required scientific proof of danger.

Considering that there are 85,000 registered synthetic chemicals in the environment – few have been tested for safety, and combinations of these chemicals have not been tested – precaution is overdue.

In everyday life people are accumulating a “body burden” of environmental toxins, according to a study conducted by Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Biomonitoring (measuring levels of environmental toxins in the body) found a total of 167 synthetic chemicals in a group of nine volunteers, who do not work with chemicals on the job and do not live near an industrial facility. Of the 167 chemicals found, 76 cause cancer in humans or animals, 94 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 79 cause birth defects or abnormal development (

Children are disproportionately exposed to these toxins, according to Winifred Hamilton, PhD, director, Environmental Health Section, Baylor College of Medicine. “Children are especially affected, and we’re undermining their future,” she says. It may be that the child living near refineries who develops a rare form of brain cancer or the man who collapses of a heart attack on a high ozone day are canaries in the mine, giving early warnings to the rest of us.

Industry unwittingly poisons workers and environment
Throughout history, industry has endangered public health and the environment by ignoring early warnings about toxins used in industrial processes and products. The early warnings have been ignored generally because it is difficult to prove harm. “For years the tobacco industry said there was no connection between lung cancer and cigarette smoking,” says Martin Lorin, MD, professor of Pediatrics, Baylor College of Medicine. “Cancer takes a long time to develop and it’s harder to study than pollutants that cause or exacerbate asthma for example.”

The following three cases illustrate how acting without caution and ignoring early warnings has had public health and environmental consequences that haunt us today.

Lead poisoning in early 1900s, still affecting children today
In 1904, paint was recognized as a cause for lead poisoning in children in Australia. But lead paint was not banned in the United States until 1978. Studies show that low levels of lead in young rats impair learning ability and induce hyperactivity. Today, the annual cost for lead poisoning in children is $54.9 billion. Learning deficiencies and behavioral problems due to lead exposure make it difficult for children to succeed in school and in life. Many of these children end up in jail – a recent study found that delinquent adolescents’ bones had about 10 times the amount of lead found in non-delinquent adolescents’ bones.

Benzene dangers discovered in late 1800s
As early as 1897, the connection between benzene, a solvent widely used in industry, and aplastic anemia was evident. Studies in 1928 and 1929 linked benzene to abnormally low white blood cell counts and leukemia in benzene workers. In 1948 American Petroleum Institute concluded the only absolutely safe level of exposure to benzene is zero, but recommended 50 ppm or less. In the 1950’s and 1960’s many workers died due to lack of precaution regarding benzene. A study of workers in 1977 directly linked benzene exposure to leukemia. This prompted the US Department of Labor to call for reducing exposure to 1 ppm, but the US Supreme Court ruled to severely limit regulatory actions. In 1987, a new standard of 1 ppm was adopted. The 10-year delay caused more than 200 deaths in the United States. Gasoline still contains benzene, and this carcinogen is prevalent in emissions from refineries. Most people living in US cities are exposed to this toxin everyday.

Workers disfigured from PCB exposure in late 1800s
Polychlorinated byphenyls (PCBs), chlorinated organic compounds, were first synthesized in the laboratory in 1881. By 1899, disfiguring skin disease known as chloracne had affected people working in the organic industry. By 1929, the chemical was mass produced for use in electrical equipment. It was 37 years before the public learned that PCBs pollute the environment, endangering humans and animals. It is now widespread in the environment. Furthermore, PCBs accumulate in the environment, in animals and in humans, and it doesn’t go away. In the 1980s, studies showed breast milk contaminated with PCBs. In the 1990s, PCBs was shown to be associated with IQ and brain defects in children exposed while in the womb.

Enough is enough – time for precaution
If the precautionary principle had guided decisions regarding the use of toxins in these three cases, many deaths, illness and harm to the environment might have been avoided. Lead, benzene and PCBs continue to threaten public health, many years after warnings with evidence that they are not safe.

“The precautionary principle is needed in decision-making because we have a moral and ethical obligation to prevent disease whenever possible,” says Hamilton.

“We rushed lead into paint and gasoline and poisoned generation after generation. Life is ruined for the unfortunate person who gets a disabling disease from exposure to these toxins,” she adds.

Precautionary principle guides EU
The precautionary principle is now guiding decisions in European countries and in international agreements. The European Union (EU) plans to enact the Regulation, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) policy in 2006. The policy will require registration of all substances that are produced or imported into the EU in quantities greater than one ton. The amount of information required for registration will be proportional to the chemical’s health risks and production volumes. Companies also will need authorization to sell and produce chemicals that carry known risks such as carcinogens, mutagens and teratogens. Chemicals that bioaccumulate and persist in the environment also will need authorization.

San Francisco follows the precautionary principle
The City and County of San Francisco also has adopted the precautionary principle to guide how city and county affairs are conducted. Leaders and citizens have agreed that:

* people have a duty to take anticipatory action to prevent harm;
* proponents of products and services bear responsibility for the safety of those products and services;
* decision makers will examine a full range of alternatives and select alternatives with the least harmful impact on environmental health and human health;
* decisions will be participatory, transparent and informed by the best available science and complete product information; and
* decision-makers will consider a full range of costs of products and services, including manufacturing, use and disposal. Economic evaluation will broadly consider long-term costs and saving of environmental policies.

What you can do: Become an advocate of the precautionary principle
Follow the precautionary principle in your own life, and encourage neighbors to do the same:

* Find alternatives to using toxic chemicals in your home and garden.
* Avoid using plastic to store food and water.
* Find ways to drive less: car pool, take public transportation, combine trips.

Let your government representatives know you want the precautionary principle to guide decisions that affect your family’s health and the health of the environment.

Adapted from article from the Building a Better World Project -, May 2006