American Council on Science and Health  [Printer-friendly version]
May 23, 2000


[Rachel's introduction: "There are at least two reasons why the
precautionary principle itself, when applied in its extreme, is a
hazard, both to our health and our high standard of living."]

By Elizabeth M. Whelan, Sc.D., M.P.H.

[Elizabeth Whelan is director of the American Council on Science
and Health.]

A recent issue of the journal "Science" focused on the dilemma posed
by the so-called "precautionary principle," which has become enshrined
in many international environmental treaties and regulations. The
greatest source of controversy about the precautionary principle is
its definition.

Our first introduction to the precautionary principle may have come
from our mothers who told us it was better to be "safe rather than
sorry", meaning we should buckle our seatbelts and throw out the left
over food we forgot to refrigerate the night before.

In these cases -- while there was no certainty that there was imminent
risk to life and health -- such caution made sense, because there was
real potential for risk. Unfortunately, there are other definitions of
the precautionary principle which are not so benign.

In the worse case scenario of the application of the precautionary
principle, advocates have recommended discarding a useful form of
technology, for example pesticides or pharmaceuticals, even if there
is just a hint of a problem For example, there are those who have
recommended that a basic, health-enhancing chemical like chlorine be
banned because of its questionable adverse effects on wildlife -- or
effect in high dose laboratory animal experiments.

There are, however, at least two reasons why the precautionary
principle itself, when applied in its extreme, is a hazard, both to
our health and our high standard of living.

First, if we act on all the remote possibilities in identifying causes
of human disease, we will have less time, less money and fewer general
resources left to deal with the real public health problems which
confront us. This does not mean that before we take prudent action to
protect public health we have to dot every scientific "i" and cross
every environmental "t". It does mean that we should not let the
distraction of purely hypothetical threats cause us to lose sight of
the known or highly probable ones.

Second, the precautionary principle assumes that no detriment to
health or the environment will result from the proposed new banning or
chemical regulation. For example, what are the known health risks from
the current regulated use of chlorine? None. How great are the
benefits? Enormous. What new health risks wold we encounter if we were
to ban chlorinated compounds because they "might" be harmful? Plenty.

Chlorine, for example, is the essential cornerstone of modern
industrial chemistry. We need chlorine to disinfect our nation's water
supply, make the agricultural pesticides that enable us to have a food
supply rich in cancer-fighting fruits and vegetables, and to produce
lifesaving pharmaceuticals.

When we apply the precautionary principle and focus on hypothetical
risks and ponder what actions we might take "just in case", we leave
the world of science and enter the realm of ideology. We allow
ourselves to come under the spell of those who are motivated , for
whatever reason, by a desire to return to what they perceive as a pre-
industrial Garden of Eden.

These "what if" ideologues need to be reminded that wealth and
industrial progress are associated with better, not worse health.
Blanket applications of the precautionary principle ultimately would
mean rejecting the modern technologies that have given us our enviable
state of good health and longevity, and the freedom to enjoy it.

So what is to be done with those instances in which the risks are
hypothetical and the costs of eliminating the technology substantial
in terms of costs and lost human benefits? What should we do when
confronted with the radical version of the precautionary principle? Go
back to what Mom said: "When in doubt, throw it out".