The Precautionary Principle as a Practical Guide

At whatever level you are involved, municipal, provincial, federal, in your workplace or a community organization, adopt the precautionary principle as a guiding principle and a practical tool for all decisions affecting both health and the environment.

Rachel’s Environment and Health News sums up the Precautionary Principle in this way:

In all formulations of the precautionary principle, we find three common elements:

1) If we have reasonable suspicion of harm

2) accompanied by scientific uncertainty, then

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

The precautionary principle does not tell us what kinds of action to take. It does not tell us to ban anything or stop anything or regulate anything. However, it assumes that our aim is to prevent harm, and a consensus is developing that several kinds of action may be helpful:

** set goals;

** examine all reasonable alternatives for achieving those goals with the expectation that the least-harmful approach will be preferred;

** shift the burden of proof to the proponents of new activities or technologies -- they bear the burden of producing information about the expected consequences of their proposed activities, monitoring and reporting as the activity unfolds, agreeing to pay for any harm that ensues, and taking responsibility for remediation as needed; and

** those who will be affected by the decision should help make the decision.

Therefore the precautionary principle is sufficiently well-defined for people to use it in the real world.”

More in Rachel’s Environmental Health News, # 789 and #790,

The precautionary principle is not just a theory. It is a practical guide to action. In Nova Scotia schools, illnesses were documented but a clear cause was not found. The Department of Education’s decision to build new schools using healthy school guidelines required some degree of “leap of faith” at first. The elements of the Precautionary Principle were carefully applied by the Department of Education as these schools were being built.

The results show this leap of faith was justified.

-- Before these guidelines were adopted, students and staff often suffered from health problems when they entered new buildings with fresh paints, varnishes and other new construction materials. Nosebleeds, asthma, rashes, even an emergency ambulance to hospital have been reported. No such problems were experienced when the new healthy schools opened.

-- Productivity is up. Teachers and staff who were off work or on reduced hours due to building related illness in the old schools are back to working full time in the healthy schools. Teachers and staff in the new, healthy schools report feeling as energetic at day’s end as they did when they entered the school.

San Francisco was the first North American city to adopt a Precautionary Principle Ordinance. The San Francisco Ordinance states,

"Where there are reasonable grounds for concern, the precautionary approach to decision-making is meant to help reduce harm by triggering a process to select the least potential threat. The essential elements of the Precautionary Principle approach to decision-making include:

1. Anticipatory Action: There is a duty to take anticipatory action to prevent harm. government, business, and community groups, as well as the general public, share this responsibility.

2. Right to Know: The community has a right to know complete and accurate information on potential human health and environmental impacts associated with the selection of products, services, operations or plans. The burden to supply this information lies with the proponent, not with the general public.

3. Alternatives Assessment: An obligation exists to examine a full range of alternatives and select the alternative with the least potential impact on human health and the environment including the alternative of doing nothing.

4. Full Cost Accounting: When evaluating potential alternatives, there is a duty to consider all the costs, including raw materials, manufacturing, transportation, use, cleanup, eventual disposal, and health costs even if such costs are not reflected in the initial price. Short- and long-term time thresholds should be considered when making decisions.

5. Participatory Decision Process: Decisions applying the Precautionary Principle must be transparent, participatory, and informed by the best available information.”

In July 2005, San Francisco became the first US city to adopt a green product procurement law. This requires San Francisco buildings and services to buy more environmentally friendly products, such as greener janitorial supplies. The law also will phase out toxic pesticide use and lumber pressure-treated with chromated copper arsenate in playgrounds.

The city will use full-cost accounting to evaluate alternative products, taking into account not only raw materials and transportation costs but disposal and possible environmental and health costs as well.

See also: Putting environmental health on the political agenda