Multinational Monitor (Vol. 25, No. 9)  [Printer-friendly version]
September 15, 2004


[Rachel's introduction: In Denton, Texas, residents want to protect
the future of their town by adopting precautionary policies. A social
movement is gathering strength, based on foresight and forecaring...]

By Nancy Myers

Ed Soph is a jazz musician and professor at the University of North
Texas in Denton, a growing town of about 100,000 just outside Dallas,
Texas. In 1997, Ed and his wife Carol founded Citizens for Healthy
Growth, a Denton group concerned about the environment and future of
their town. The Sophs and their colleagues -- the group now numbers
about 400 -- are among the innovative pioneers who are implementing
the Precautionary Principle in the United States.

The Sophs first came across the Precautionary Principle in 1998, in
the early days of the group's campaign to prevent a local copper wire
manufacturer, United Copper Industries, from obtaining an air permit
that would have allowed lead emissions. Ed remembers the discovery of
the Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle -- a 1998
environmental health declaration holding 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" -- as "truly a life-changing
experience." Using the Precautionary Principle as a guide, the
citizens refused to be drawn into debates on what levels of lead, a
known toxicant, might constitute a danger to people's health. Instead,
they pointed out that a safer process was available and insisted that
the wise course was not to issue the permit. The citizens prevailed.

The principle helped again in 2001, when a citizen learned that the
pesticides 2,4-D, simazine, Dicamba and MCPP were being sprayed in the
city parks. "The question was, given the 'suspected' dangers of these
chemicals, should the city regard those suspicions as a reassurance of
the chemicals' safety or as a warning of their potential dangers?" Ed
recalls. "Should the city act out of ignorance or out of common sense
and precaution?"

Soph learned that the Greater Los Angeles School District had written
the Precautionary Principle into its policy on pesticide use and had
turned to Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a system aimed at
controlling pests without the use of toxic chemicals. The Denton group
decided to advocate for a similar policy. They persuaded the city's
park district to form a focus group of park users and organic
gardening experts. The city stopped spraying the four problem
chemicals and initiated a pilot IPM program.

The campaign brought an unexpected economic bonus to the city. In the
course of their research, parks department staff discovered that corn
gluten was a good turf builder and natural broadleaf herbicide. But
the nearest supplier of corn gluten was in the Midwest, and that meant
high shipping costs for the city. Meanwhile, a corn processing
facility in Denton was throwing away the corn gluten it produced as a
byproduct. The parks department made the link, and everyone was
pleased. The local corn company was happy to add a new product line;
the city was happy about the expanded local business and the lower
price for a local product; and the environmental group chalked up
another success.

The citizens of Denton, Texas, did not stop there. They began an
effort to improve the community's air pollution standards. They got
arsenic-treated wood products removed from school playgrounds and
parks and replaced with nontoxic facilities. "The Precautionary
Principle helped us define the problems and find the solutions," Ed

But, as he wrote in an editorial for the local paper, "The piecemeal
approach is slow, costly and often more concerned with mitigation than
prevention." Taking a cue from Precautionary Principle pioneers in San
Francisco, they also began lobbying for a comprehensive new
environmental code for the community, based on the Precautionary

In June 2003, San Francisco's board of supervisors had become the
first government in the United States to embrace the Precautionary
Principle. A new environmental code drafted by the city's environment
commission put the Precautionary Principle at the top, as Article One.
Step one in implementing the code was a new set of guidelines for city
purchasing, pointing the way toward "environmentally preferable"
purchases by careful analysis and choice of the best alternatives. The
White Paper accompanying the ordinance pointed out that most of the
city's progressive environmental policies were already in line with
the Precautionary Principle, and that the new code provided unity and
focus to the policies rather than a radically new direction.

That focus is important; too often, environmental matters seem like a
long, miscellaneous and confusing list of problems and solutions.

Likewise in Denton, the Precautionary Principle has not been a magic
wand for transforming policy, but it has put backbone into efforts to
enact truly protective and far-sighted environmental policies. Ed Soph
points out that, in his community as in others, growth had often been
dictated by special interests in the name of economic development, and
the environment got short shrift.

"Environmental protection and pollution prevention in our city have
been a matter, not of proactive policy, but of reaction to federal and
state mandates, to the threat of citizens' lawsuits, and to civic
embarrassment. Little thought is given to future environmental
impacts," he told the city council when he argued for a new
environmental code.

He added, "The toxic chemical pollution emitted by area industries has
been ignored or accepted for all the ill-informed or selfish reasons
that we are too familiar with. The Precautionary Principle dispels
that ignorance and empowers concerned citizens with the means to
ensure a healthier future."

The Precautionary Principle has leavened the discussion of
environmental and human health policy on many fronts -- in
international treaty negotiations and global trade forums, in city
resolutions and national policies, among conservationists and
toxicologists, and even in corporate decision making.

Two treaties negotiated in 2000 incorporated the principle for the
first time as an enforceable measure. The Cartagena Protocol on
Biosafety allows countries to invoke the Precautionary Principle in
decisions on admitting imports of genetically modified organisms. It
became operative in June 2003. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent
Organic Pollutants prescribes the Precautionary Principle as a
standard for adding chemicals to the original list of 12 that are
banned by the treaty. This treaty went into force in February 2004.

Making Sense of Uncertainty

Understanding the need for the Precautionary Principle requires some
scientific sophistication. Ecologists say that changes in ecological
systems may be incremental and gradual, or surprisingly large and
sudden. When change is large enough to cause a system to cross a
threshold, it creates a new dynamic equilibrium that has its own
stability and does not change back easily. These new interactions
become the norm and create new realities.

Something of this new reality is evident in recently observed changes
in patterns of human disease:

Chronic diseases and conditions affect more than 100 million men,
women, and children in the United States -- more than a third of the
population. Cancer, asthma, Alzheimer's disease, autism, birth
defects, developmental disabilities, diabetes, endometriosis,
infertility, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease are becoming
increasingly common.

Nearly 12 million children in the United States (17 percent) suffer
from one or more developmental disabilities. Learning disabilities
alone affect at least 5 to 10 percent of children in public schools,
and these numbers are increasing. Attention deficit hyperactivity
disorder conservatively affects 3 to 6 percent of all school children.

The incidence of autism appears to be increasing.

Asthma prevalence has doubled in the last 20 years.

Incidence of certain types of cancer has increased. The age-adjusted
incidence of melanoma, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and cancers of the
prostate, liver, testis, thyroid, kidney, breast, brain, esophagus and
bladder has risen over the past 25 years. Breast cancer, for example,
now strikes more women worldwide than any other type of cancer, with
rates increasing 50 percent during the past half century. In the
1940s, the lifetime risk of breast cancer was one in 22. Today's risk
is one in eight and rising.

In the United States, the incidence of some birth defects, including
male genital disorders, some forms of congenital heart disease and
obstructive disorders of the urinary tract, is increasing. Sperm
density is declining in some parts of the United States and elsewhere
in the world.

These changes in human health are well documented. But proving direct
links with environmental causative factors is more complicated.

Here is how the scientific reasoning might go: Smoking and diet
explain few of the health trends listed above. Genetic factors explain
up to half the population variance for several of these conditions --
but far less for the majority of them -- and in any case do not
explain the changes in disease incidence rates. This suggests that
other environmental factors play a role. Emerging science suggests
this as well. In laboratory animals, wildlife and humans, considerable
evidence documents a link between environmental contamination and
malignancies, birth defects, reproductive disorders, impaired behavior
and immune system dysfunction. Scientists' growing understanding of
how biological systems develop and function leads to similar

But serious, evident effects such as these can seldom be linked
decisively to a single cause. Scientific standards of certainty (or
"proof") about cause and effect are high. These standards may never be
satisfied when many different factors are working together, producing
many different results. Sometimes the period of time between
particular causes and particular results is so long, with so many
intervening factors, that it is impossible to make a definitive link.
Sometimes the timing of exposure is crucial -- a trace of the wrong
chemical at the wrong time in pregnancy, for example, may trigger
problems in the child's brain or endocrine system, but the child's
mother might never know she was exposed.

In the real world, there is no way of knowing for sure how much
healthier people might be if they did not live in the modern chemical
stew, because the chemicals are everywhere -- in babies' first bowel
movement, in the blood of U.S. teenagers and in the breastmilk of
Inuit mothers. No unexposed "control" population exists. But clearly,
significant numbers of birth defects, cancers and learning
disabilities are preventable.

Scientific uncertainty is a fact of life even when it comes to the
most obvious environmental problems, such as the disappearance of
species, and the most potentially devastating trends, such as climate
change. Scientists seldom know for sure what will happen until it
happens, and seldom have all the answers about causes until well after
the fact, if ever. Nevertheless, scientific knowledge, as incomplete
as it may be, provides important clues to all of these conditions and
what to do about them.

The essence of the Precautionary Principle is that when lives and the
future of the planet are at stake, people must act on these clues and
prevent as much harm as possible, despite imperfect knowledge and even

Environmental Failures

A premise of Precautionary Principle advocates is that environmental
policies to date have largely not met this challenge. Part of the
explanation for why they have not is that the dimensions of the
emerging problems are only now becoming apparent. The limits of the
earth's assimilative capacity are much clearer now than they were when
the first modern environmental legislation was enacted 30 years ago.

Another part of the explanation is that, although some environmental
policies are preventive, most have focused on cleaning up messes after
the fact -- what environmentalists call "end of pipe" solutions.
Scrubbers on power plant stacks, catalytic converters on tailpipes,
recycling and super-sized funds dedicated to detoxifying the worst
dumps have not been enough. The Precautionary Principle holds that
earlier, more comprehensive and preventive approaches are necessary.
Nor is it enough to address problems only after they have become so
obvious that they cannot be ignored -- often, literally waiting for
the dead bodies to appear or for coastlines to disappear under rising

The third factor in the failure of environmental policies is
political, say Precautionary Principle proponents. After responding to
the initial burst of concern for the environment, the U.S. regulatory
system and others like it were subverted by commercial interests, with
the encouragement of political leaders and, increasingly, the
complicity of the court system. Environmental laws have been subjected
to an onslaught of challenges since the 1980s; many have been modified
or gutted, and all are enforced by regulators who have been chastened
by increasing challenges to their authority by industry and the

The courts, and now increasingly international trade organizations and
agreements like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the North
American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), have institutionalized an anti-
precautionary approach to environmental controls. They have demanded
the kinds of proof and certainty of harms and efficacy of regulation
that science often cannot provide.

False certainties

Ironically, one tool that has proved highly effective in the battle
against environmental regulations was one that was meant to strengthen
the enforcement of such laws: quantitative risk assessment. Risk
assessment was developed in the 1970s and 1980s as a systematic way to
evaluate the degree and likelihood of harmful side effects from
products and technologies. With precise, quantitative risk assessments
in hand, regulators could more convincingly demonstrate the need for
action. Risk assessments would stand up in court. Risk assessments
could "prove" that a product was dangerous, would cause a certain
number of deaths per million, and should be taken off the market.

Or not. Quantitative risk assessment, which became standard practice
in the United States in the mid-1980s and was institutionalized in the
global trade agreements of the 1990s, turned out to be most useful in
"proving" that a product or technology was not inordinately dangerous.
More precisely, risk assessments presented sets of numbers that
purported to state definitively how much harm might occur. The next
question for policymakers then became: How much harm is acceptable?
Quantitative risk assessment not only provided the answers; it
dictated the questions.

As quantitative risk assessment became the norm, commercial and
industrial interests were increasingly able to insist that harm must
be proven "scientifically" -- in the form of a quantitative risk
assessment demonstrating harm in excess of acceptable limits -- before
action was taken to stop a process or product. These exercises were
often linked with cost-benefit assessments that heavily weighted the
immediate monetary costs of regulations and gave little, if any,
weight to costs to the environment or future generations.

Although risk assessments tried to account for uncertainties, those
projections were necessarily subject to assumptions and
simplifications. Quantitative risk assessments usually addressed a
limited number of potential harms, often missing social, cultural or
broader environmental factors. These risk assessments have consumed
enormous resources in strapped regulatory agencies and have slowed the
regulatory process. They have diverted attention from questions that
could be answered: Do better alternatives exist? Can harm be

The slow pace of regulation, the insistence on "scientific certainty,"
and the weighting toward immediate monetary costs often give the
benefit of doubt to products and technologies, even when harmful side
effects are suspected. One result is that neither international
environmental agreements nor national regulatory systems have kept up
with the increasing pace and cumulative effects of environmental

A report by the European Environment Agency in 2001 tallied the great
costs to society of some of the most egregious failures to heed early
warnings of harm. Radiation, ozone depletion, asbestos, Mad Cow
disease and other case studies show a familiar pattern: "Misplaced
'certainty' about the absence of harm played a key role in delaying
preventive actions," the authors conclude.

They add, "The costs of preventive actions are usually tangible,
clearly allocated and often short term, whereas the costs of failing
to act are less tangible, less clearly distributed and usually longer
term, posing particular problems of governance. Weighing up the
overall pros and cons of action, or inaction, is therefore very
difficult, involving ethical as well as economic considerations."

The Precautionary Approach

As environmentalists looked at looming problems such as global
warming, they were appalled at the inadequacy of policies based on
quantitative risk assessment. Although evidence was piling up rapidly
that human activities were having an unprecedented effect on global
climate, for example, it was difficult to say when the threshold of
scientific certainty would be crossed. Good science demanded caution
about drawing hard and fast conclusions. Yet, the longer humanity
waited to take action, the harder it would be to reverse any effect.
Perhaps it was already too late. Moreover, action would have to take
the form of widespread changes not only in human behavior but also in
technological development. The massive shift away from fossil fuels
that might yet mitigate the effects of global warming would require
rethinking the way humans produce and use energy. Nothing in the risk-
assessment-based approach to policy prepared society to do that.

The global meetings called to address the coming calamity were not
helping much. Politicians fiddled with blame and with protecting
national economic interests while the globe heated up. Hard-won and
heavily compromised agreements such as the 1997 Kyoto agreement on
climate change were quickly mired in national politics, especially in
the United States, the heaviest fossil-fuel user of all.

In the United States and around the globe, a different kind of
struggle had been going on for decades: the fight for attention to
industrial pollution in communities. From childhood lead poisoning in
the 1930s to Love Canal in the 1970s, communities had always faced an
uphill battle in proving that pollution and toxic products were making
them sick. Risk assessments often made the case that particular
hazardous waste dumps were safe, or that a single polluting industry
could not possibly have caused the rash of illnesses a community
claimed. But these risk assessments missed the obvious fact that many
communities suffered multiple environmental assaults, compounded by
other effects of poverty. A landmark 1987 report by the United Church
of Christ coined the term "environmental racism" and confirmed that
the worst environmental abuses were visited on communities of color.
This growing awareness generated the international environmental
justice movement.

In early 1998, a small conference at Wingspread, the Johnson
Foundation's conference center in Racine, Wisconsin, addressed these
dilemmas head-on. Participants groped for a better approach to
protecting the environment and human health. At that time, the
Precautionary Principle, which had been named in Germany in the 1970s,
was an emerging precept of international law. It had begun to appear
in international environmental agreements, gaining reference in a
series of protocols, starting in 1984, to reduce pollution in the
North Sea; the 1987 Ozone Layer Protocol; and the Second World Climate
Conference in 1990.

At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, precaution was enshrined as Principle
15 in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development: "In order to
protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely
applied by states according to their capabilities. Where there are
threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific
certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective
measures to prevent environmental degradation."

In the decade after Rio, the Precautionary Principle began to appear
in national constitutions and environmental policies worldwide and was
occasionally invoked in legal battles. For example:

The Maastricht Treaty of 1994, establishing the European Union, named
the Precautionary Principle as a guide to EU environment and health

The Precautionary Principle was the basis for arguments in a 1995
International Court of Justice case on French nuclear testing. Judges
cited the "consensus flowing from Rio" and the fact that the
Precautionary Principle was "gaining increasing support as part of the
international law of the environment."

At the World Trade Organization in the mid-1990s, the European Union
invoked the Precautionary Principle in a case involving a ban on
imports of hormone-fed beef.

The Wingspread participants believed the Precautionary Principle was
not just another weak and limited fix for environmental problems. They
believed it could bring far-reaching changes to the way those policies
were formed and implemented. But action to prevent harm in the face of
scientific uncertainty alone did not translate into sound policies
protective of the environment and human health. Other norms would have
to be honored simultaneously and as an integral part of a
precautionary decision-making process.

Several other principles had often been linked with the Precautionary
Principle in various statements of the principle or in connection with
precautionary policies operating in Northern European countries. The
statement released at the end of the meeting, the Wingspread Statement
on the Precautionary Principle, was the first to put four of these
primary elements on the same page -- acting upon early evidence of
harm, shifting the burden of proof, exercising democracy and
transparency, and assessing alternatives. These standards form the
basis of what has come to be known as the overarching or comprehensive
Precautionary Principle or approach:

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.

The conference generated widespread enthusiasm for the principle among
U.S. environmentalists and academics as well as among some
policymakers. That was complemented by continuing and growing support
for the principle among Europeans as well as ready adoption of the
concept in much of the developing world. And in the years following
Wingspread, the Precautionary Principle has gained new international

Nancy Myers is communications director for the Science and
Environmental Health Network. This article is based on a chapter in a
the new book, Precautionary Tools for Reshaping Environmental
Policy, edited by Nancy Myers and Carolyn Raffensperger (Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT Press, 2005); ISBN 0-262-63323-X.