American Council on Science & Health  [Printer-friendly version]
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

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

YORK, NY 10023-5860 TEL: (212) 362-7044, FAX: (212) 362-4919 E-MAIL:

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