Using Precautionary Rule for Health Makes Sense

Life on earth evolved from and interacts with an incomprehensibly vast and complex array of chemical entities. Until modern times, however, no single species affected the biosphere substantially. With industrialization and population growth, humanity now threatens the existence of hundreds of species, and perhaps the long-term health of the planet as a whole.
In the United States alone, some 80,000 chemicals are in routine use. More than 3,000 of these are produced at the rate of more than a million pounds per year, with more than a billion pounds of known or suspected neurotoxins added to the environment annually.

Unfortunately, there is very little scientific understanding of potential consequences. Less than 1 percent of the most ubiquitous chemicals have been studied well enough to derive reasonably sounds conclusions regarding human or ecological impact. This is not the result of scientific failure, but instead a direct byproduct of political choices to favor industry over public health, and to avoid or minimize environmental health research.
To illustrate potential dangers, it may be instructive to briefly review the history of the heavy metal lead. While acute lead poisoning was known to the ancients, it was not until the first decades of the 20th century that toxicity from chronic low-level exposures emerged. Numerous observations of illness among people working with lead spurred Australia to ban leaded paint in 1920, followed by an international convention on lead in 1925. In the United States, where paint manufacturers had clout, and where the anti-knock properties of lead in gasoline were discovered in 1921, political-industrial expediency took precedence, and significant restrictions were postponed more than 50 years. In the United States, lead paint was not banned until 1976, and leaded gasoline not phased out until 1996.
During these 50 to 70 years, when lead should have been banned from paint and gasoline, thousands of people suffered acute lead poisoning, and tens of millions of children were exposed to lead levels sufficient to permanently impair their intellectual functioning. This is worth stating twice. There was enough evidence for several countries to ban lead in paint in 1920s. The United States did not do so until 1976. During the interval, tens of millions of children - at least 1 in every 10 kids - were poisoned sufficiently to cause permanent harm.
Wider appreciation and use of the "precautionary principle" could help avert similar disasters. As Tim O'Riordan and James Cameron have aptly noted in "Interpreting the Precautionary Principle" (1994), the precautionary idea originated in 1930s German democratic socialist thought: "The German concept of Vorsorgeprinzip means much more than the rough English translation of foresight planning. It absorbs notions of risk prevention, cost effectiveness ..., ethical responsibilities toward maintaining the integrity of natural systems, and the fallibility of human understanding."
The Rio Declaration resulting from the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development described the precautionary principle as follows: "When there are threats of serious and irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation."
A statement from the 1998 Wingspread environmental health conference says: "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."
While the precautionary principle reflects common sense, wisdom and perhaps even conservative values, recognition and implementation have been slow and elusive.
Meanwhile, reckless disregard for potential consequences holds the day, with environmental catastrophe brewing in every quarter. From mercury and dioxin to global warming, political exigencies trump public health and common sense. If you've read this far, you are perhaps already among those who want more stringent regulation and better science. If so, please help us spread to word, both in your daily lives and work, and in communications to your elected representatives. For information and action outlets, try or
Above all, keep hope and keep at it, remembering Margaret Meade's famous quote: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
Dr. Bruce Barrett

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"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead