Science and Environmental Health Network  [Printer-friendly version]
August 22, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Here we begin an occasional column by Carolyn
Raffensperger, "Try this at home" -- how to apply precaution in
common situations. We welcome your questions sent to
We may not be able to answer all of them, but we will try. Our goal
is to establish a dialogue and learn from each other.]

By Carolyn Raffensperger

Recently we received an email asking, "Does the Precautionary
Principle apply to contaminated properties that are being considered
for redevelopment? I appreciate any response. Thank You." -- Olivia

Dear Olivia,

Thank you for your question. Communities have struggled with this
problem for a long time. In fact, the history of contaminated sites
like Love Canal gave rise to the precautionary principle in the
United States since it was obvious that the old way of doing business
had failed.

There are answers on multiple levels to your question. I will give

1) Contaminated sites are a good rationale for the precautionary
principle -- so we don't have more contaminated sites. All that is to
say, the principle works best before the contamination occurs because
it is designed to prevent harm.

2) However, a contaminated site can cause future damage if left to
fester. Invoking the precautionary principle to prevent future harm
from inadequate or no clean up of the site is a perfectly appropriate
use of the principle. Using precautionary implementation strategies
like setting clean up goals and evaluating the best alternative clean
up methods well help prevent ongoing damage.

3) The precautionary principle is embedded in a large ethical position
of preventing harm to future generations. Leaving a contaminated site
to those to come is immoral. Therefore it is our ethical
responsibility to use the precautionary principle and prevent any more

Best wishes, --Carolyn


Carolyn Raffensperger is the executive director of the Science and
Environmental Health Network, headquartered in Ames, Iowa.