03 November 2007

Environmental Research Foundation


By Peter Montague
The Wingspread Statement's definition of the precautionary principle is now widely quoted:

"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."

The Essence of Precaution:

Critics say that the precautionary principle is not well-defined. However, the Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN) points out that, in all formulations of the precautionary principle, we find three elements:

1) When we have a reasonable suspicion of harm, and

2) scientific uncertainty about cause and effect, then

3) we have a duty to take action to prevent harm.

The precautionary approach suggests five actions we can take:

(1) Set a goal (or goals);

(2) Examine all reasonable ways of achieving the goal, intending to choose the least-harmful way;

(3) Monitor results, heed early warnings, and make mid-course corrections as needed;

(4) Shift the burden of proof -- when consequences are uncertain, give the benefit of the doubt to nature, public health and community well-being. Expect responsible parties (not governments or the public) to bear the burden of producing needed information. Expect reasonable assurances of safety for products before they can be marketed -- just as the Food and Drug Administration expects reasonable assurances of safety before new pharmaceutical products can be marketed.

(5) Throughout the decision-making process, honor the knowledge of those who will be affected by the decisions, and give them a real "say" in the outcome. This approach naturally allows issues of ethics, right-and-wrong, and justice to become important in the decision.

Instead of asking the basic risk-assessment question -- "How much harm is allowable?" -- the precautionary approach asks, "How little harm is possible?"
In sum: Faced with reasonable suspicion of harm, the precautionary approach urges a full evaluation of available alternatives for the purpose of preventing or minimizing harm.

Much more on this through http://www.sehn.org/precaution.html


Further reading:

In the U.S., the leading proponent of the precautionary approach is the Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN). Their web site at http://www.sehn.org/ is a gold mine of information. CLIP

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