Science and Environmental Health Network, 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 several.

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 harm.

Best wishes, --Carolyn


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