n 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. 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:
- 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 have a reasonable suspicion
that something bad might be going to happen, you have an obligation to
try to stop it.")
- The burden of proof of harmlessness of a new technology,
process, activity, or chemical lies with the proponents, not with the general
- 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.
- Decisions applying the precautionary principle must be
"open, informed, and democratic" and "must include affected
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 United States and Europe for the past 70 years has been guided
by entirely different principles perhaps best reflected in the aphorisms,
"Nothing ventured, nothing gained" and, "Let the devil take
Participants at the Wingspread meeting
came from the United States, 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. "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.
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?'"
Participants noted that current policies
such as risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis give the benefit of the
doubt to new products and technologies, which may later prove harmful. And
when damage occurs, victims and their advocates have the nearly-impossible
task of proving that a particular product or activity was responsible.
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 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 percent 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 percent represents the painful
deaths of nearly 11,000 individuals each year in the United States 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."
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 start-up.
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 United States 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."
Mr. Mongoven says the precautionary
principle is antagonistic to science, has its origins in instinct and feeling,
and "threatens the entire chemical industry."
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.