Rachel's Precaution Reporter #65, November 22, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Seattle toxicologist Steve Gilbert has developed a new way to make decisions about toxic chemicals, incorporating the precautionary principle.]

Steve Gilbert is one of those rare, gifted scientists who can talk about complicated subjects in a way that everyone can understand. His book, A Small Dose of Toxicology; The Health Effects of Common Chemicals is a masterpiece of good science writing, and his web site is a treasure trove of understandable information about chemicals and health.

Steve was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Seattle Working Group on the Precautionary Principle, which has convinced the city to add precautionary language to the City Plan and introduced a precaution resolution that was adopted by the Washington State Public Health Association.

In his work as a toxicologist, Steve has observed the shortcomings of numerical risk assessment as a decision-making tool, and recently he has developed a new tool for making decisions about toxic materials. He calls it "precautionary assessment." Steve's full explanation of precautionary assessment is available here, accompanied by an Excel spreadsheet, found here.

Steve says, "The goal of precautionary assessment (PA) is to move beyond risk assessment and allow communities and individuals to incorporate their knowledge, values and ethics into a more comprehensive evaluation of a hazardous condition.

"Precautionary assessment contains three basic elements:

"a) community and social issues,

"b) exposure issues, and

"c) hazard and toxicity issues.

"Each element is broken down into a series of questions that are scored numerically and summed to produce a summary score for each element. A lack of knowledge usually is indicated by applying the highest score.

"The PA is designed to help place the knowledge available within the context of the community. In contrast to the traditional risk assessment, the PA is a more comprehensive approach to evaluating the human and environmental health risks. Overall, the PA, by building upon the foundation of the precautionary principle, is a more reasonable, rational, and responsible approach to evaluating environmental and human health risks of chemicals."

Take a look, give it a try, and tell Steve what you think: sgilbert@innd.org.