American Council on Science & Health, July 15, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: "The precautionary principle is an anti- progress, anti-technology ideology that would cause the health of our nation to stagnate instead of steadily improving."]

By Sara Cuccio, American Council on Science and Health

Once again, proponents of the precautionary principle have tried to convince us that we are always "better safe than sorry." Dr. Bruce Barrett recently published an article in favor of using this poorly defined doctrine to govern public health issues, making it in effect an institutionalized "fear factor."

The UN Rio Declaration of 1992 states that "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." As applied, the principle would cause various scientific activities and technologies to be banned, even after tests have failed to show demonstrable harm. It turns out that there may actually be more risk in using this principle than in not using it, as it often leads to rejection of the same technological advances that have enhanced human health and longevity.

Advocates of the precautionary principle make arguments that reveal their stance as ideological and anti-technological. Barrett dramatically claims that due to under-researched chemicals and industrialization, "humanity now threatens the existence of hundreds of species, and perhaps the long-term health of the planet as a whole." He argues that there are "ethical responsibilities" to interrupt even alleged and potential threats posed by humans. He should remember, though, that we also have an ethical responsibility to use technological resources to move humanity forward and save lives. Barrett calls for more regulation and "better science." Clearly, though, "better science" comes only from research and innovation.

Proponents of the precautionary principle must know that nothing is completely risk-free. Of course, risks must be evaluated for any new product or technique, but limits must be set as to how much proof of risk is necessary before innovations are banned. No matter how many risks we prove untrue there will always be unknowns, and focusing on these minor or hypothetical threats will greatly impede productive activities. The risk of inaction must also be considered when bans are placed on the development of potentially groundbreaking procedures and practices -- banning them can produce risks in itself. ACSH president Dr. Elizabeth Whelan cites the examples of pesticides and pharmaceuticals in a 2000 editorial and uses the case of chlorine to counter the precautionists. Chlorine, while poisonous at high exposures, is needed to disinfect our water supply, to make necessary pesticides, and to create lifesaving medications. While there are no proven harmful effects from appropriate use of chlorine, and while it has proven to be lifesaving, precautionary principle advocates still argue against chlorine because of hypothetical risks. Further examples can be found in the cases of blood transfusions and organ transplants, both undeniably major advances in medical therapy. Furthermore, had the precautionary principle been used fifty years ago, virtually no pharmaceuticals would be available today. Had it been in effect one hundred years ago, the automobile and air travel would never have been developed.

In addition, fearing all of the possible minor risks of a product or activity takes up time, money, and resources that should be used instead on research, prevention, and treatment efforts -- such as water chlorination.

The precautionary principle is an anti-progress, anti-technology ideology that would cause the health of our nation to stagnate instead of steadily improving. Proponents of this principle are blind to the benefits of technology and want amateur critics to have ultimate power to inhibit the work of qualified scientists -- "just in case."

Sara Cuccio is a research intern at the American Council on Science and Health.

Visitor Responses

Kazimiera J. Cottam, PhD (July 16, 2005)

I am convinced this article is misguided. The precautionary principle should definitely be applied in reference to toxic chemicals, especially when used for cosmetic purposes. Chlorine should be used in public pools to kill germs, but this use is necessary--it is not cosmetic! No dandelion is worth anyone's death and disease. No child should be unnecessarily exposed to toxic chemicals. And we shouldn't compare apples and oranges: for example, driving a car is another matter, as its usefulness, one might say a necessity in many cases, outweighs the risk of injury and death. Of course, there must be an emphasis on safe driving. On the other hand, there is no such thing as safe use of lawn herbicides! In other words, common sense enters into the discussion.

E Soph (July 16, 2005)

Ms. Cuccio believes that scientific uncertainty should be the basis for inaction and delay. Her method of thinking was used by the paint and petrochemical industries to delay (for almost 50 years!) meaningful actions to protect children from lead poisoning. Her method of thinking is used today by the Bush administration to delay meaningful actions to curtail greenhouse gas emissions. Proponents of the precautionary principle believe that scientific uncertainty demands ethical, humane, and innovative actions, not obfuscation and half-truths designed to protect the interests of irresponsible industries that endanger the healthful future of the planet and all of its inhabitants.

P Duerr (July 18, 2005)

I am disturbed by the responses to Ms. Cuccio's position. In defense of her position she has captured the problems with the precautionary principle and the motivations by the people that often invoke it very well. The logic of Kazimiera's response is severely lacking. Toxicity is defined by the amount of a substance not the substance itself. It is interesting that using herbicides is an unnecessary risk but somehow swimming in a pool is not. Since when is a swimming pool necessary? If chlorine posses a risk are there not other recreational activities that could be substituted to eliminate that exposure to chlorine? Common sense has never been part of the precautionary principle. E Soph attacks irresponsible industries for endangering our health and the planet. Undoubtedly there have and continue to be abuses by industry. However, overall technology and industry have improved the lives of billions of people through out the world. That is a fact not a half-truth. Using greenhouse gas emissions as an example is a wonderful demonstration of threat of the precautionary principle. The existing plans will not reduce CO2 in a meaningful way nor will it have even a measurable impact on global temperature. Yet these plans will impose a huge cost on the world's poorest resulting in more suffering and death. How dare you talk about ethics and humane actions if that is your position. More people need to speak out against these positions and thinking or future generations will pay a high cost for our fear and inaction.

About the Editor: Todd Seavey is Director of Publications at ACSH and edits FactsAndFears. His opinions are not necessarily ACSH's.

He can be reached at

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