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Environmental and Occupational Health

The Precautionary Principle

While it is difficult to know the exact role toxins play in determining our health, the depth of their impact on our ecological system and our individual health becomes clearer every day. Many environmental health activists, believing that environmental and public health regulations do not adequately protect either the environment or human health, are undertaking a global campaign to create new public policies based on an approach called the Precautionary Principle.

For decades, health and safety regulations on new chemicals and technologies have been based on risk assessment, which assumes there are certain levels of toxic exposure and contamination our bodies can tolerate and assimilate. Advocates of the Precautionary Principle believe this a flawed strategy, and are fighting to replace the risk paradigm with standards that protect people and the environment from potential harm.

A widely used set of guidelines for the Precautionary Principle comes from the Wingspread Statement, which states that "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."

How does this differ from the guidelines that inform our current policies? The Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow delineates the four fundamental flaws in our health and environmental regulations:

  • Potential toxins are not usually tested for safety before use.

  • The government usually takes action only after harm is proven and widespread.

  • Certain levels of harm are accepted and allowed by government authorities.

  • Powerful special interests obstruct government action to protect our health

In his article An Example of the Precautionary Principle at Work: Endocrine Disruption, Joel Tickner explains that implementing the Precautionary Principle would switch the questions currently asked in environmental and public health policy. According to Tickner, "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?'"

One of the best sources of information on the Precautionary Principle and environmental health policy can be found at the website of the Science and Environmental Health Network20 FAQs Regarding the Precautionary Principle and The Importance of the Precautionary Principle are both excellent introductions to the ideas of the Precautionary Principle and the movement behind the push to change environmental policy. The alarming Pollution is Personal, written by the Massachusetts Precautionary Principle Project, points out the depth of toxic contamination within our bodies, and details the increased incidence of certain diseases, many of which have suspected links to environmental pollution.

Environmental health advocacy organizations often focus on children, because kids appear to be more vulnerable to environmental toxins. Children breathe, eat, and drink more per pound of body weight than adults, and they are more likely to encounter contaminants in dust, dirt, carpets, and toys as they explore the world with their hands and mouths. In addition, they are exposed to toxins at an age when their organs and physiological processes are still developing. The Children's Environmental Health Network aims to both educate the public about toxic exposures and child development and to organize actions to protect children from environmental risks. The Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow has a similar mission, and their website includes a list of online articles on children's health and the Precautionary Principle.

Conceived primarily around environmental regulations, the Precautionary Principle is now a central component of environmental medicine. In The Coming Age of Ecological Medicine Kenny Ausubel talks about the widespread sense that mainstream medicine is blind to the complex knot linking human health and the state of the natural world. The article gives an excellent overview of the tenets behind the environmental health movement and of the shared philosophies of the loosely knit group of people -- from physicians to biologists to activists to parents -- who are working for change.

To find out more about the Precautionary Principle, check out these online resources:

  • The Precautionary Principle in Action is a 22-page handbook that provides an in-depth exploration of the concepts and practical application of the Precautionary Principle. (Note: this link will download the handbook in Rich Text Format.)

  • A compass for health: rethinking precaution and its role in science and public health is an article that looks at criticisms of the Precautionary Principle.

  • The 2001 International Summit on Science and the Precautionary Principle brought together scientists, philosophers, legal scholars, and other environmental and health professionals to explore the relationship between science and the precautionary principle, and to develop a vision for scientific methods, tools, and policies that supports precaution under uncertainty and complexity. Details of the Summit are online .

  • Health care professionals take an oath to do no harm, but ironically many practices of the medical industry release dangerous contaminants like dioxin and mercury into our environment. Health Care without Harm's mission is to "transform the health care industry so it is no longer a source of environmental harm by eliminating pollution in health care practices without compromising safety or care."

  • The website Our Stolen Future, based on a book with the same title, is committed to exploring one particular environmental health risk: "The emerging science of endocrine disruption: how some synthetic chemicals interfere with the ways that hormones work in humans and wildlife." The site has an excellent article debunking the myths and misperceptions often perpetuated in media accounts of scientific findings on chemicals.

Written by: Our Bodies Ourselves
Last revised: March 2005

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