Table of Contents
Welcome to Rachel's Precaution Reporter
Welcome to the first issue of, Rachel's Precaution
Reporter, intended to keep readers informed about
the precautionary principle as it spreads world-wide
and throughout the U.S.
Slow Down, You Move Too Fast
Donella Meadows asked, How should we proceed when
the way ahead is murky? Speed up or slow down?
Precaution for Breast Cancer Means Research into Causes
For more than a decade, breast cancer activists have
led the way, demanding a precautionary approach to
environmental threats to human health.
Please Be Careful
This sophisticated attack on the precautionary
principle says it will undermine democracy, restrict
trade, and increase baseless government regulations.
From: Environmental Research Foundation, Aug. 29, 2005
WELCOME TO RACHEL'S PRECAUTION REPORTER
Welcome to the first issue of Rachel's Precaution Reporter (RPR),
which is intended to keep you informed about the precautionary
We will be publishing RPR as often as we can gather useful articles --
we expect it will appear about once a week. Each issue will contain
two to five articles. (Incidentally, RPR will not replace Rachel's
Environment & Health News, our best-known publication.)
As you know, the precautionary principle is a modern way of making
decisions, to minimize harm. It is being discusssed and adopted around
the world and within the U.S.
In Europe the precautionary principle has been championed by
governments. However in the U.S., the precautionary principle
developed from a different source. In the 1990s, after 20 years of
grass-roots fights over toxic exposures justified by numerical risk
assessments, the precautionary approach emerged from the grass-roots
movement for environmental justice and the grass-roots toxics
movement. Breast cancer activists have played an especially important
role in advancing precaution in the U.S.
We think the precautionary principle is one of the most important
social inventions of the 20th century because this simple idea can be
applied to many problems besides toxic chemicals.
Because it is such a powerful, transformative idea, major opposition
to the precautionary principle has now emerged.
RPR will offer you news and views about precaution, including
published material from the opponents of precaution. We think it's
essential to know what the opposition is saying.
If you come across good articles that illustrate the precautionary
principle -- or reasons why we NEED the precautionary principle --
please Email them to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We publish two editions of RPR: The TOC edition is merely a Table of
Contents, with a brief description beneath each headline to help you
decide whether a particular story interests you. The headlines are
linked to the original source, somewhere out on the web.
The full HTML edition carries the same Table of Contents and brief
descriptions, but it also includes the text of each article (making
for a bulkier Email message). Although some web links in the TOC
edition will grow stale rather quickly, the text of the stories in the
full HTML edition will not disappear.
Both editions are Emailed to subscribers free of charge.
Please let us know what you think -- and be sure to send us any
material you think precaution activists or advocates would find
To subscribe, send a blank Email to either
You will receive an Email asking you to confirm that you want to
--Peter Montague and Tim Montague, editors
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From: Grist, Jan. 9, 2001
SLOW DOWN, YOU MOVE TOO FAST
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
By Donella H. Meadows
What do you do when you want to move fast but the way ahead is dark,
possibly dangerous, and almost entirely unknown? Accelerate? Proceed
with moderation? Slow way down? Stop?
That question underlies most environmental regulations. We are not
sure what pesticides are doing to soils, waters, other creatures, or
ourselves. We have only a vague idea what our rising greenhouse gas
output will do to the climate. We're in the dark about the
consequences of genetic engineering. So should we go ahead? How fast?
U.S. policy, and that of most other countries, has ranged from
acceleration to moderation. Often the cost has been revealed only
decades later, in the form of poisoned wells, sickened rivers,
unhealthy air, dying wildlife, deformed babies. Now some governments
are saying it makes more sense to slow down or stop.
The go-slow policy is hotly discussed in Europe and in the United
Nations, but it is rarely mentioned in the U.S. news. It is called the
"precautionary principle." The basic idea is familiar to everyone. An
ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Look before you leap. If
you can't afford to lose, don't gamble.
Or as a scientific gathering in 1998 put it: "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."
Or as Christine Todd Whitman put it, two months before George W. Bush
appointed her to head the Environmental Protection Agency: "We must
acknowledge that uncertainty is inherent in managing natural
resources, recognize it is usually easier to prevent environmental
damage than to repair it later, and shift the burden of proof away
from those advocating protection toward those proposing an action that
may be harmful."
If she meant that, she may be a historic EPA director.
U.S. environmental policy is based not on the precautionary principle,
but on "risk management." That means balancing risks against benefits.
If the benefits seem to outweigh the risks, full steam ahead. If a
pesticide will give cancer to only one person in a million, but make a
corporation a hundred million bucks, go for it.
There are two big problems with risk/benefit policy. The first is that
those who bear the risk are rarely the ones who get the benefits. The
second problem is that the benefits are usually much better known than
the risks. It is astonishing how much we don't know about what we are
See, for example, an article by 17 scientists from six countries in a
recent Science magazine that summarizes the literature on climate
change. It cites facts like this: In the past 100 years human fossil
fuel burning has raised the atmospheric concentration of carbon
dioxide higher than it has been for the previous 420,000 years -- and
we're still accelerating.
The article repeats over and over that we do not know what that means
for the planet. "As we drift further away from the domain that
characterized the preindustrial Earth system, we severely test the
limits of our understanding of how the Earth system will respond," say
the authors. And "humans have affected virtually every major
biogeochemical cycle, but the effects of these impacts on the
interactions between these elemental cycles are poorly understood."
So, push the accelerator pedal to the floor?
Another Science article in December surveys what we know about the
effects of genetically engineered organisms (GEOs). This article is
another ode to uncertainty. "Neither the risks nor the benefits of
GEOs are certain or universal." "Our ability to accurately predict
ecological consequences, especially long-term higher-order
interactions, increases the uncertainty associated with risk
assessment." "Additional or unidentified benefits and risks may exist
that published data do not yet address."
Should we turn hundreds of GEOs out of our labs and plant them on
millions of acres of land?
Yet another recent Science article summarizes the findings of an
expert panel on endocrine disrupters -- hormone-mimicking chemicals,
including many pesticides and plasticizers. The panel concluded that
incredibly tiny concentrations of these chemicals -- concentrations
virtually all of us are exposed to -- can cause development problems
in rat and mouse embryos. The findings are especially disturbing,
because they contradict the basic assumption underlying all toxics
policy: that a low enough dose of any poison is essentially harmless.
But the studies were done on lab animals. "How these results may
relate to disease late in life in animals, let alone humans, is
uncertain," says the article.
Shall we go on cranking out the chemicals?
Yes, say those who make money from them. No, says the precautionary
principle. Plastics, pesticides, fossil fuels, gene-modified crops may
make someone money and may save us all time or increase our
convenience. But there are ways to proceed, probably more slowly,
without them or with much less of them. It's not worth risking human
health or the planetary functions that sustain us, just to keep going
- -- - -- - -- - -- - -
Donella H. Meadows (1941-2001) was an adjunct professor of
environmental studies at Dartmouth College and director of the
Sustainability Institute in Hartland, Vt.
Return to Table of Contents
From: Chronogram, Aug. 4, 2005
PUSH FOR PRECAUTION
QUOTABLE: "Despite widespread adherence among the scientific community
to the commonsense precautionary principle 'An ounce of prevention is
worth a pound of cure,' studies that look for links between breast
cancer incidence and environmental factors are not commonplace."
By Susan Piperato
Despite widespread adherence among the scientific community to the
commonsense precautionary principle "An ounce of prevention is worth a
pound of cure," studies that look for links between breast cancer
incidence and environmental factors are not commonplace. "We are
canaries in a coal mine, and we have been for years," says Hope
Nemiroff, executive director of Breast Cancer Options (BCO), a
grassroots organization offering information and support for women
diagnosed with breast cancer, based in Ulster County. While breast
cancer has become the "most commercialized illness with money being
raised for the cure," she says, "even the National Institutes of
Health and the National Cancer Institute admit they haven't spent
enough time looking at the causes and why the disease happens in the
That means pushing for research, both nationally and within our own
community, says Nemiroff. Working toward the same goal are the Breast
Cancer & Environmental Risk Factors program at Cornell University,
and more than 20 fellow organizations (including Breast Cancer
Options) that make up the New York State Breast Cancer Support and
Education Network (co-directed by Andi Gladstone at 607-279-1043), a
statewide coalition of organizations dedicated to providing support
and education services to more than 100,000 women and their families
affected by breast cancer, located from Buffalo to Long Island.
According to recent reports issued by the nation's leading cancer
organizations (the American Cancer Society, Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, National Cancer Institute, and North American
Association of Central Cancer Registries), the risk of getting cancer
is falling nationwide and survival rates for many cancers are
improving, thanks to progress made by programs in prevention, early
detection, and better treatments.
However, not all types of cancers, or regions, have benefited equally
from such programs. In 2004, an estimated 40,000 women nationwide died
of breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Breast
cancer is now the most prevalent type of cancer for American women, as
well as the top cause of cancer-related deaths among women ages 40 to
Since 2003, New York State has held second place nationwide for breast
cancer incidence and mortality rates. Annually in New York State,
approximately 3,000 women die of breast cancer. Although Monroe
County, in the northwestern area of the state, has the highest rates
of breast cancer at 150 to 160 incidents per 100,000 women, rates for
counties in the Hudson Valley region also show cause for concern.
According to the New York State Cancer Registry, overseen by the New
York State Department of Health (NYSDOH), Hudson Valley breast cancer
incidence rates for 1996-2000 were 140 to 150 per 100,000 women (the
highest rating) in Rensselaer and Rockland counties; 130 to 140 per
100,000 women in Ulster, Dutchess, Orange, Westchester, and Albany
counties; 120 to 130 per 100,000 women in Greene and Sullivan
counties; 110 to 120 per 100,000 women in Putnam and Columbia
counties; and below 110 per 100,000 women in Delaware County (the
However, checking rates by zip code on the "Maps and Stats by Zip
Code" menu of the website for the Program on Breast Cancer &
Environmental Risk Factors (BCERF) at Cornell University, can turn
up statistics that are potentially more alarming than those from the
Cancer Registry. Some zip codes' rates fall below expected statistics;
for example, from 1993 to 1997, there were 127 actual incidences of
breast cancer reported in Kingston 12401, with the area's actual rate
falling below its "expected" rate of 132.4. However, in nearby
Woodstock, incidence rates are 15 to 49 percent higher than expected;
and several areas near Kingston, including New Paltz, Pine Hill,
Glenford, Hurley, and West Hurley, exceed their "expected" statistics
by 50 to 100 percent.
Carmi Orenstein, educator and assistant director of BCERF, says, "In
New York State we know [statistics] by county and zip code and it's
often alarming," but adds, "cancer clusters," or areas of extremely
high cancer incidence, are not necessarily being indicated. "There may
be some small clusters, but an epidemiologist wouldn't call this a
cancer cluster, that's for sure." Breast cancer, she explains, is a
"multifactorial disease" with known and hypothetical risk factors,
including protective or harmful changes in breast fat cells influenced
by onset of menstruation, predisposition, age of first pregnancy, and
whether a woman breast-feeds, as well as "every interaction a woman
has with the environment," from ionizing radiation (which caused high
rates of adult onset of breast cancer, for example, in Japanese
infants and young women exposed to atomic bombing) to environmental
estrogens (synthetic chemicals that "mimic" estrogen, cause endocrine
disruption, and may stimulate cell division in the breast).
Nonetheless, BCERF's mission is to study the link between breast
cancer incidence and exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals common
in environmental pollution and pesticides, as well as conduct forums
throughout New York State on "cancer-related issues that are important
in a region, and report on what we're working on," says Orenstein. "We
have a lot of diverse projects, like studying contaminants in the
water supply. But the most important thing we do is get people from
different agencies talking to each other and the public."
So, until both the cure and the causes for breast cancer are
discovered, what do we Hudson Valley residents do to guard ourselves,
our families, and our communities from breast cancer? "Learn to live
defensively," says Nemiroff.
Become an Activist
"In order to get studies working and get answers, people really need
to be involved," says Orenstein. The New York State Cancer Registry,
located in Albany at the New York State Department of Health,
collects, processes, and reports on information about every New Yorker
diagnosed with cancer. To register or find out more about rates,
visit their web site.
Since NYS Breast Cancer Network was formed, says Gladstone, breast
cancer advocacy organizations have been able to influence public
policy, including adding treatment coverage to the Healthy Women
Partnerships program for mammography and other cancer screening for
low-income and/or uninsured women; requiring state agencies to buy
safe and sustainable products and services; and establishing a
statewide health tracking and biomonitoring program. "This monitors
people's toxic loads in different areas of the state and correlates
illness incidence with what's going on with the individuals and
pollution," she says. The network also helped draft legislation for
the Neighbor Notification Law requiring 24 hours' notice be given
before spraying pesticides. The only problem: the law is county-
optional, and so far, only seven counties -- Albany, Erie, Nassau,
Rockland, Suffolk, Tompkins, and Westchester -- have signed on.
In a study published last month by the Environmental Working Group,
researchers at two major laboratories found a total of 287 types of
industrial chemicals and pollutants in umbilical cord blood from 10
babies born during August and September 2004 in US hospitals --
including pesticides, consumer product ingredients, brominated flame
retardants used in clothes and textiles, and stain and oil repellants
found in fast food packaging, clothing, and furnishings.
Chemicals possibly related to cancer can be found in surprising
places, says Nemiroff. Breast Cancer Options' 2005 Breast Cancer Risk
Reduction Calendar lists the top anticancer and lowest-in-pesticides
foods, along with 125 chemicals with which most people are unfamiliar
-- found in everything from makeup to cleansers -- and gives hints on
how to keep house and eat safely.
The BCERF Cancer and Environment Forum will take place on Friday,
September 30, 10am-3pm, at 711A Legislative Office Building, Albany.
Call (607) 255-1185 for more information.
Copyright 2005 Luminary Publishing, Inc.
Return to Table of Contents
From: Truth About Trade & Technology, Aug. 16, 2005
PLEASE BE CAREFUL
By Gary E. Marchant and Kenneth L. Mossman
Killer cranberry juice? Toxic corn flakes? Hazardous energy drinks?
Only under a loose concept known as the precautionary principle, which
has swept across Europe.
This precautionary principle gives regulators broad authority to err
on the side of safety and puts the burden of proof on the proponents
of a technology to prove its safety. The European Union officially
adopted the precautionary principle in 1992 as a binding legal
requirement for all health, safety, and environmental regulatory
decisions. Most recently, the French Parliament in February
incorporated it into the French national constitution.
The concept of the precautionary principle may sound relatively
innocuous. Who can argue against being safe rather than sorry? But the
idea is flawed in theory and practice, and the enshrinement of the
precautionary principle sets Europe down a path that will wreak havoc
on the economy and public health of not only itself but also its
For example, the European Union and its member nations for the past
six years relied on the precautionary principle to justify a de facto
moratorium on the approval of any new genetically modified foods -- a
moratorium that has only recently, slowly, and grudgingly begun to be
relaxed. Even though its own scientific advisers had found that
genetically modified foods have no known risks and are probably safer
than conventional foods, the European Union prohibited genetically
modified foods based on the precautionary principle.
The U.S. government says that this EU ban costs the United States $300
million per year in lost food exports, and it has filed a legal action
against the moratorium under international trade laws. The World Trade
Organization is expected to issue an initial ruling by the end of this
FLAWED BY DEFINITION
More generally, the precautionary principle suffers from at least
three major intellectual flaws.
First, there are dozens of formulations of the principle promulgated
by regulators, courts, academics, and nongovernmental organizations in
the European Union and elsewhere. These formulations differ in
important details, such as whether and how costs should be considered,
whether all risks or only "serious and irreversible" risks raise
concerns, and what steps a product manufacturer must undertake to
satisfy the principle. There is no single or official version of the
Yet the European Union purports to apply "the" precautionary
principle. The Treaty of the European Union, as amended in 1992,
states simply that "community policy on the environment... shall be
based on the precautionary principle." The ambiguity resulting from
this failure to specify which version of the principle is to be
applied opens the door to its arbitrary application.
Second, most versions of the precautionary principle fail to give
adequate weight to scientific evidence or consideration of costs and
trade-offs. Some precaution is prudent and indeed essential for all
environmental, health, and safety regulation. But too much precaution,
especially if it ignores the financial costs, opportunity costs, and
risk trade-offs of excessive regulation, can result in unreasonable
decisions that do more harm than good.
Finally, the precautionary principle provides no limits on the
application of precaution, in that it provides no risk targets or safe
harbors that could exempt a product from further precautionary action.
As such, the principle could theoretically be applied to prohibit any
or every product or activity, since it is impossible to prove zero
risk for anything. Yet, obviously, the precautionary principle will
not be invoked to ban every product.
So it ends up being applied in an unprincipled and arbitrary manner.
In some cases, economic protectionism seems to be the deciding factor;
in others, officials appear to be bowing to irrational public fears.
ARBITRARY AND CAPRICIOUS
The precautionary principle has already unleashed a wave of absurd and
arbitrary risk decisions since the European Union adopted it in 1992.
We recently analyzed more than 60 decisions by EU courts in the
1995-2004 period, in which the precautionary principle was cited. (The
results are explained more fully in our 2004 book, Arbitrary and
Capricious: The Precautionary Principle in the European Courts.) We
found that despite using the precautionary principle to decide several
important cases, the EU courts failed to define or articulate the
specific requirements or meaning of this principle. They simply
invoked it as a wild card that justified whatever decision they wanted
In some cases the courts acted quite sensibly to overturn regulatory
decisions by individual nations where the precautionary principle
lacked any scientific justification. For example, Denmark relied on
the precautionary principle to ban cranberry-juice drinks because the
added vitamin C could potentially be harmful to some unusually
susceptible individuals. The EU Court of First Instance initially
upheld this ban, writing that "a plausible public-health risk is
enough, according to the precautionary principle." But the appellate
European Court of Justice overturned the ban in 2003, holding that,
notwithstanding the precautionary principle, an EU member nation that
seeks to ban a product must demonstrate a "real risk" that is
"sufficiently established on the basis of the latest scientific data."
Similarly, an EU court in 2001 overturned a decision by Norway to ban
corn flakes fortified with several essential vitamins -- a ban that
the Norwegian government had justified under the precautionary
principle because "the fortification in question might be a health
hazard when eaten in uncontrollable and unforeseen amounts." Yet
another court decision in 2004 overturned a regulation by France
banning caffeinated energy drinks because the caffeine could
potentially harm pregnant women. The courts concluded that these
regulations based on the precautionary principle were unjustified
departures from reasoned decision-making that lacked any credible
NO FAIR NOTICE
Certainly the EU courts have not always seen through weak
precautionary principle arguments, choosing instead to join regulatory
agencies in applying the principle in unreasonable ways.
For example, the Court of First Instance in 2002 used the
precautionary principle to uphold the EU ban on using virginiamycin --
an antibiotic widely sold by Pfizer -- in animal feed even though the
product had been used for 40 years without showing any signs of
danger. The court's opinion started reasonably, stating that even
under the precautionary principle, the European Union's proposed feed
ban must be based on "as thorough a scientific risk assessment as
possible" to ensure that regulations are "founded on objective and
sound scientific findings." But the court then found that the ban was
justified by a risk assessment made by a scientific advisory
committee, even though that committee had "firmly" concluded that
there would be no risk from the continued use of virginiamycin while
further studies on the safety of the antibiotic were completed.
The court held that under the precautionary principle, the European
Union was justified in departing from the expert scientific opinion
"on the ground that it was in the interests of human health
protection." The perplexing outcome of this case: While EU regulations
require a valid, scientific risk assessment, the European Union can
adopt a regulation directly contrary to the conclusions of that
assessment by invoking the precautionary principle.
In another case, the European Court of Justice in 2000 held a company
criminally liable for producing a hazardous waste that did not even
meet the European Union's own regulatory criteria for a hazardous
waste. Although the applicable EU rules explicitly stated that a
company could be held liable only for hazardous wastes that met the
regulatory criteria, the court decided that the precautionary
principle justified ignoring statutory construction, due process, and
fair-notice concerns. The court's decision upheld the opinion of its
advocate general, who argued that "determining in advance and in a
limitative manner the circumstances requiring the intervention of
public authorities to avert a specific risk to the environment" would
be contrary to the precautionary principle.
In still other cases, EU courts dismissed the precautionary principle
as an insignificant and irrelevant provision that added nothing to the
pre-existing statutory requirements. For example, in one 2001 decision
rejecting France's attempt to block imports of British beef based on
fears of mad cow disease, the European Court of Justice stated that
France's invocation of the precautionary principle to justify its
import ban "added nothing" to its argument.
In short, depending on the inclinations of individual judges, the
precautionary principle can vary anywhere from an absolutist, extreme
measure that mandates zero risk to an empty concept that has no
substantive effect on decisions.
OPEN TO IRRATIONALITY
Thus, the track record of the precautionary principle in Europe is not
good. Given its inherent flaws and ambiguity, the principle cannot be
sustained in the long run. As the EU courts' advocate general warned
in one opinion, "The precautionary principle has a future only to the
extent that, far from opening the door wide to irrationality, it
establishes itself as an aspect of the rational management of risks,
designed not to achieve zero risk, which everything suggests does not
Yet despite this troubling empirical record, there seems to be no
letup in the proliferation of the precautionary principle around the
world. Courts in Canada, India, Australia, and New Zealand have
recently endorsed this principle. Several international environmental
treaties, such as the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic
Pollutants, expressly incorporate the precautionary principle.
San Francisco recently became the first U.S. city to officially adopt
the precautionary principle, requiring by ordinance that "All
officers, boards, commissions, and departments of the City and County
shall implement the Precautionary Principle in conducting the City and
County's affairs." Several other U.S. cities are reportedly
considering following suit.
Decisions about regulating risks involve a complex interaction of
science, public policy, values, economics, incentives, precautions,
and uncertainty. Attempting to replace the admittedly difficult and
messy steps needed to reach the best possible risk decisions with a
simplistic slogan like the precautionary principle is inconsistent
with fundamental tenets of democracy. The inherent ambiguity and
arbitrariness of the principle give regulators unfettered discretion
to adopt unreasonable regulations, contrary to the greater principle
that we have a government of laws, not men.
The precautionary principle is an open invitation for nations to
impose protectionist restrictions on trade, for regulators to write
burdensome rules based on bias or emotion, and for companies to lobby
for unfair restrictions on their competitors. Moreover, because the
principle does not provide a meaningful foundation for making risk
decisions, the true basis for these decisions is kept hidden,
undermining the transparency and public accountability critical to
democratic government. In short, the rapidly proliferating
precautionary principle is bound to inflict a lot more damage around
the world before it finally and inevitably collapses upon itself.
Return to Table of Contents
Rachel's Precaution Reporter offers news, views and practical
examples of the Precautionary Principle, or Foresight Principle,
in action. The Precautionary Principle is a modern way of making
decisions, to minimize harm. Rachel's Precaution Reporter tries
to answer such questions as, Why do we need the precautionary
principle? Who is using precaution? Who is opposing precaution?
Rachel's Precaution Reporter is published as often as necessary
to provide readers with up-to-date coverage of the subject.
As you come across stories that illustrate the precautionary
principle -- or the need for the precautionary principle --
please Email them to us at email@example.com.
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