TCS Daily

Look Out! The Precautionary Principle May Soon Be in a State Near You

By Bonner R. Cohen - July 18, 2001 12:00 AM

In these times of jittery stock prices and almost daily announcements of new layoffs by high-tech firms, it would be easy to conclude that the biggest threat to American predominance in science and technology comes from the current economic slowdown.

Think again. What poses a far more lethal danger to America's technological prowess is a little-noticed doctrine that has already taken hold in Europe and now threatens to gain footing on these shores. That doctrine is the "precautionary principle," and if it isn't seen for what it is and stopped dead in its tracks, it will do irrevocable harm to the world's most scientifically advanced nation.

Beguiling in its simplicity, the precautionary principle seems to suggest little more than "better safe than sorry" or "look before you leap." But on closer inspection, the precautionary principle turns out to be a dagger aimed directly at the nation's most promising technologies and innovative products.

Consider this definition of the precautionary principle embraced by a coalition of environmental groups who want to see the doctrine guide health and safety decision in the US:

"When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment of human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."

By separating "threats of harm" from "cause and effect relationships," the precautionary principle opens the door to a world in which mere conjecture becomes the driving force behind health and safety regulations.

"The so-called precautionary principle," notes Alan S. Felsot, an environmental toxicologist at Washington State University, "essentially holds that when any concerns or allegations, no matter how spurious, are raised about the safety of a product or activity, precautionary measures should be put in place and all burden of proof to the contrary should fall on the proponent of the allegedly unsafe product or activity."

This is exactly what a group of environmental organizations led by the Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN) wants to see happen. In January 1998, 31 activists from five countries gathered under SEHN's auspices at Wingspread, the Racine, Wisconsin-based headquarters of the Johnson Foundation. Arguing that existing regulatory structures have not adequately protected the public, the Wingspread participants pointed to an array of maladies afflicting the planet as proof that changes need to be made. Their list of grievances ranged from cancer, asthma, and birth defects to species extinction, climate change, and "worldwide contamination with toxic substances."

Wingspread participants Carolyn Raffensperger and Joel Tickner have written that the "burden of scientific proof has posed a monumental barrier in the campaign to protect health and the environment." In its place, the Wingspread activists resolved to substitute the precautionary principle. What's more, they launched a campaign to have the precautionary principle adopted at the state level. Unaware of its implications, unsuspecting state legislators are simply being asked to take additional measures to protect the health and welfare of children.

Legislation has already been introduced in Massachusetts to create the Massachusetts Commission to Protect Child Health and Development. The commission would publish an annual study "on the potential effects of the environment and social conditions on children's health; the effectiveness of programs, laws and policies of the Commonwealth in preventing harm to children's health; and scientific and technology research priorities for developing early warning signals of potential environmental hazards to children's health and means for preventing them at the source."

Additionally, the commission would develop a plan that would include "exercising foresight and applying the precautionary principle to protect the health and development of children in Massachusetts." One of the bill's sponsors, Senator Pamela Resor, attended the Wingspread conference. By purporting to be merely an instrument to protect the health of children, the bill provides cover for precautionary principle advocates to pursue their far more ambitious agenda.

Pushing for adoption of this scheme is the Massachusetts Precautionary Principle Project, a coalition of three groups: the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, the Clean Water Fund, and the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts.

Sharon Koshar, who works for the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, says that the precautionary principle "speaks to our concerns about illnesses linked to environmental exposures." When looking at the possible causes of breast cancer and other ailments, there are things that "can't be quantified or qualified," she explains. Traditional approaches "leave too much unanswered," she goes on. "The precautionary principle is a brilliant idea which will provide protection from such exposures."

With similar moves planned for Minnesota and New Jersey, the Wingspread activists are determined to see the precautionary principle underlie health, safety and environmental decisions in as many states as possible.

The universe of products and technologies that can be attacked for posing "potential" is virtually limitless. Virginia-based Health Care Without Harm is using the precautionary principle in its nationwide campaign against medical devices such as blood bags, transfusion equipment, and intravenous tubing and bags. The group claims that phthalates, the chemicals used to make the bags and tubes softer, could leach into patients. Health Care Without Harm cannot document a single case of a patient's being harmed in this manner. In fact, the targeted devices have been used safely in hospital for 40 years.

The precautionary principle is a Luddite's dream come true in which the mere possibility that something might pose a risk is enough to doom a product's chances of ever reaching consumers or drive safe products from the marketplace. It is being used in Europe to justify slapping stiff regulations on genetically modified and banning the import of North American beef fed with growth hormones. It would be nice to think that something like that could never happen here. But the precautionary principle's supporters in the U.S. are determined that it will.

Bonner R. Cohen is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.


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