Autism and the Environment 101: Online Course 18

The Precautionary Principle

The idea that chemicals and products should be proven safe before they are approved to be marketed has been called “The Precautionary Principle,” or look before you leap. It puts the burden of scientific proof of safety for new substances on the manufacturer. Some policymakers are now recommending this approach over the more common “cost-benefit analysis” approach, where the costs of potential risks and harms is calculated and an evaluation is made of whether or not these outweigh the benefits. (In these situations there can be huge controversies about how to estimate the risks.) In some other countries, the Precautionary Principle approach is getting serious governmental attention. For example, it is now required by law in Europe.

The Precautionary Principle states that it is the responsibility of government, as regulators, to ensure that proper precautions have been taken before a product goes to market. If this system fails, potentially harmful products can enter the marketplace. In recent decades, many people have been concerned that this system has, in fact, failed, introducing such harmful items to the world around us. Public attention was first attracted to the issue with the publication, by Rachel Carson, of Silent Spring in 1962. In 1996, Theo Colburn’s book Our Stolen Future brought to the forefront the concept and risks of endocrine disrupting chemicals. Then, in 1998, a group of scientists, ethicists, lawyers, and activists convened at the pivotal Wingspread Conference in Madison, WI. They formulated the following:

“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.”
Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, Jan. 1998


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