Rachel's Precaution Reporter #3
Wednesday, September 14, 2005

From: Council of the European Union .......................[This story printer-friendly]
June 18, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: "Where there is scientific uncertainty, implement evaluation procedures and take appropriate preventive action in order to avoid damage to human health or to the environment."]

[RPR introduction: The Council of the European Union (the main decision-making body of the EU) met for two days in Brussels June 16-17, 2005, and issued a 41-page document titled, "Presidency Conclusions (10255/05)," which is available in PDF format here. Among other decisions, the Council adopted a "Declaration of Guiding Principles for Sustainable Development, reprinted below, which includes an endorsement, or re-endorsement, of the precautionary principle.]



Sustainable development is a key objective set out in the Treaty, for all European Community policies. It aims at the continuous improvement of the quality of life on earth of both current and future generations. It is about safeguarding the earth's capacity to support life in all its diversity. It is based on the principles of democracy and the rule of law and respect for fundamental rights including freedom and equal opportunities for all. It brings about solidarity within and between generations. It seeks to promote a dynamic economy with full employment and a high level of education, health protection, social and territorial cohesion and environmental protection in a peaceful and secure world, respecting cultural diversity.

To achieve these aims in Europe and globally, the European Union and its Member States are committed to pursue and respect, on their own and with partners, the following objectives and principles:

Key objectives


Safeguard the earth's capacity to support life in all its diversity, respect the limits of the planet's natural resources and ensure a high level of protection and improvement of the quality of the environment. Prevent and reduce environmental pollution and promote sustainable production and consumption to break the link between economic growth and environmental degradation.


Promote a democratic, socially inclusive, cohesive, healthy, safe and just society with respect for fundamental rights and cultural diversity that creates equal opportunities and combats discrimination in all its forms.


Promote a prosperous, innovative, knowledge-rich, competitive and eco-efficient economy which provides high living standards and full and high-quality employment throughout the European Union.


Encourage the establishment and defend the stability of democratic institutions across the world, based on peace, security and freedom. Actively promote sustainable development worldwide and ensure that the European Union's internal and external policies are consistent with global sustainable development and its international commitments.

Policy guiding principles


Place human beings at the centre of the European Union's policies, by promoting fundamental rights, by combating all forms of discrimination and contributing to the reduction of poverty and the elimination of social exclusion worldwide.


Address the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs in the European Union and elsewhere.


Guarantee citizens' rights of access to information and ensure access to justice. Develop adequate consultation and participatory channels for all interested parties and associations.


Enhance the participation of citizens in decision-making. Promote education and public awareness of sustainable development. Inform citizens about their impact on the environment and their options for making more sustainable choices.


Enhance the social dialogue, corporate social responsibility and private-public partnerships to foster cooperation and common responsibilities to achieve sustainable production and consumption.


Promote coherence between all European Union policies and coherence between local, regional, national and global actions in order to enhance their contribution to sustainable development.


Promote integration of economic, social and environmental considerations so that they are coherent and mutually reinforce each other by making full use of instruments for better regulation, such as balanced impact assessment and stakeholder consultations.


Ensure that policies are developed, assessed and implemented on the basis of the best available knowledge and that they are economically sound and cost-effective.


Where there is scientific uncertainty, implement evaluation procedures and take appropriate preventive action in order to avoid damage to human health or to the environment.


Ensure that prices reflect the real costs to society of production and consumption activities and that polluters pay for the damage they cause to human health and the environment.


From: Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment [This story printer-friendly]
July 14, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: The ban has had mixed reactions. Consumer organisations and NGOs are relieved while the toy industry points to a 'misuse of the precautionary principle."]

Phthalates are widely used chemicals (clothes, PVC building materials, medical products, cosmetics, toys, child care articles, food packaging). In toys, they are used to soften the PVC plastics certain toys are made of.

Phthalates are believed to be harmful to human health, causing damage to the reproductive system and increasing the risks of allergies, asthma and cancer. Phthalates have been temporarily banned [in the European Union] since 1990, the ban being regularly renewed.

The situation has led to the emergence of different national policies, thereby potentially undermining the functioning of the internal market.

Based on the precautionary principle, the [European] Parliament has voted by an overwhelming majority (487 in favour, 9 against and 10 abstentions) to ban the use of three and restrict the use of another three chemicals in plastic toys and childcare articles, without age- limitations. "Toxic chemicals have no place in children's toys," commented Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner Markos Kyprianou.

Under the new directive: three phthalates -- DEHP, DBP and BBP -- will be banned in all toys and childcare articles; three others -- DINP, DIDP and DNOP -- will be banned from use in toys and childcare articles for those articles that can be put children's mouths.

The Commission will prepare guidelines to facilitate the implementation of these new provisions on the restrictions in toys and childcare articles insofar as they concern the condition "which can be placed in the mouth by children".

To read more: http://www.euractiv.com

Copyright 2004/2005 IEMA


From: Newsweek ............................................[This story printer-friendly]
July 26, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: Weil and Mazur aren't alarmists. But they both support the ban-first, study-it-later "precautionary principle," adopted in some countries in Europe.... In the United States, it's the opposite scenario: science has to first prove something is harmful before it is banned.]

By Martha Brant, Newsweek

July 26 -- Doctors once thought that the placenta would shield a fetus from harmful chemicals and pollutants. But new research shows that may not be the case. A study published this month by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an advocacy group based in Washington DC, found traces of 287 chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of 10 infants. They included mercury, pesticides and the chemicals used in stain- resistant coating and fire-retardant foam. The findings prompted concerns since children's smaller brains, developing organs and more porous brains put them more at risk from such toxins than adults. "A child's brain is very vulnerable and developing very rapidly in utero and during the first two years of life," says Jane Houlihan, co-author of the study.

While former threats like smallpox and polio are now under control, conditions like autism and asthma are on the rise. Autism rates are up tenfold, asthma cases have doubled and incidences of childhood cancers like leukemia and brain cancer are also high. No one has pinpointed the cause of the increases yet. But reports like this one may leave many parents feeling like they need a PhD in chemistry just to keep their children healthy in an unhealthy, even toxic, world. The EWG study detected perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), for example, in all 10 of the newborns' blood at a range of 3.37 to 10.7 parts per billion. It's not clear whether chemicals at this ratio can cause cancer or birth defects or precisely what, if any, levels would be safe in such a young population, but these levels are certainly not naturally occurring. The samples also contained up to 14,200 parts per trillion of polybrominate dephenyl ethers (PBDEs), which have been linked to brain and thyroid development problems.

The sample of cord blood in the EWG study is too small to be conclusive. (There are not many studies of cord blood because it is hard to get and expensive to test.) But the findings got some support from a comprehensive study of chemicals in Americans' bodies done by the Centers for Disease Control. The report, which came out last week, involved tests of some 2,400 people aged six or older for 62 of the same chemicals, as well as 86 not included in the EWG report. Though levels of lead in children had decreased from previous studies, the report also found some doses of some chemicals in children, including DDE (an industrial pesticide) and phthalates, which are found in nail polish and some plastic toys.

Dr. Lynnette Mazur, who is on the American Academy of Pediatrics environmental health committee, acknowledges that all these studies can be very confusing to parents. "There are a lot of huge names and all these numbers next to them, but there is no clinical correlation with these numbers." In other words, kids aren't showing up at her office in Houston with obvious effects from pesticide poisoning. But she notes that it takes science awhile to figure out what's going on. "And by then it's usually too late," she says.

That was the case in the coastal town of Minimata in Japan, where residents in the 1940s and 1950s unwittingly ate seafood that had been contaminated with mercury compounds dumped into the bay by a local chemical company. In the early 1950s, residents began suffering brain damage and neurological effects. But it was not until 1959 that researchers realized the victims were suffering the effects of mercury poisoning, and the connection was made to the contaminated seafood and the company that had dumped the waste.

The mercury found in the infants' blood in the EWG report was not nearly as concentrated as the levels found in Minimata residents. But doctors have long been worrisome about its effects. Pregnant women-- and toddlers--are now routinely advised to avoid fish with potentially high mercury content like swordfish, shark and tilefish. These large fish eat little fish that eat the algae that may be contaminated by pollution. Dr. William Weil, who serves on the American Academy of Pediatrician's Committee on Environmental Health, says he would also put tuna steaks on the list of fish to avoid. Some fish, he says, also accumulate PCBs--industrial pollutants also found in the EWG study--in their fat, but, "the inexpensive canned tuna kids eat is probably safe."

Weil and Mazur aren't alarmists. But they both support the ban-first, study-it-later "precautionary principle," adopted in some countries in Europe when there are any questions about the safety of a chemical. In the United States, it's the opposite scenario: science has to first prove something is harmful before it is banned. The European Parliament, for example, recently banned phthalates. But the Toy Industry Association in the United States scoffed at that move since it says that the risk of phthalates is still being studied. Weil isn't worried about pregnant women using nail polish, but he's concerned about pesticides--especially those used to treat lawns and parks where kids play. "Live with a few dandelions," he says. He also recommends frequent hand washing. The average two-year-old puts his hands in his mouth nine times an hour, according to Environmental Protection Agency data.

The good news, and there is some, is that both PCB and lead levels are going down in all age groups. In fact, another study released last week by the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics found that lead levels in children 1 to 5 years old had declined 89 percent since the mid 1970s, when the government took lead out of gasoline after it was found to lower IQs (though lead paint remains a worry). PCBs were also banned in the 1970s, but they linger in the environment for decades. As PCBs are waning, however, PBDEs and PFCs are taking their place and again showed up in the cord blood samples. The first is the chemical in fire retardants; they're often used in furniture foam, for example. So Houlihan recommends that parents should immediately fix any rips that expose the foam. The second is used in stain-resistant clothing and plastic food containers. To avoid the chemicals, Houlihan suggests parents buy clothes that get dirty and avoid heating food in plastic containers in the microwave. "All this information can seem overwhelming, but there are some simple things that parents can do," she says.

Copyright 2005 Newsweek, Inc.


From: American Council on Science and Health ..............[This story printer-friendly]
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 the 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 its 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".


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?

We often include attacks on the precautionary principle because we believe it is essential for advocates of precaution to know what their adversaries are saying, just as abolitionists in 1830 needed to know the arguments used by slaveholders.

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 rpr@rachel.org.

Peter Montague - peter@rachel.org
Tim Montague - tim@rachel.org


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