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Better Safe Than Sorry
Using the Precautionary Principle to make good health and environmental decisions

By Wendy Priesnitz

precautionary principle
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My mother always used to tell me that it was “better to be safe than sorry.” Her many clichés often annoyed me, and they often were contradictory or just plain wrong. However, I now believe that this one was correct. It is, in fact, one of the foundations of common sense – certainly in terms of making decisions about health and environmental matters, but perhaps in other aspects of life too. And it has come to be called the Precautionary Principle.

A precautionary approach is caution taken in advance, or caution practiced in the context of uncertainty in order to anticipate harm before it occurs. It aims to prevent harm from the outset rather than manage it after the fact. Under the Precautionary Principle (which is enshrined in the law of the European Union but not in those of other countries, and in some international treaties like the Rio Declaration from the 1992 Earth Summit and the Convention on Biological Diversity), it is the responsibility of the proponent of an activity or manufacturer of a product to establish that it will not (or is very unlikely to) result in significant harm. As a tool of policy makers, it is said to have formed the basis of social democratic environmental policies in West Germany, including measures to address the effects of acid rain on forests.

The 1998 Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, resulting from a conference of the Science and Environmental Health Network in Wisconsin, summarizes the principle this way: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” Author Terry Tempest Williams has said that the precautionary principle is “restraint in the name of reverence,” which I think describes it well.

Some libertarians, pro-business commentators, and conservative think tanks believe that approach would smother economic activity, shut down innovation and risk-taking, and, for instance, prevent potentially life-saving drugs from reaching the market in a timely fashion. Nevertheless, we take precautions all the time in life. Dr. Devra Davis – epidemiologist, author, and founder of the Environmental Health Trust – makes this comment on the wisdom of precaution: “We do not wait for buildings to fall down or bridges to collapse before reinforcing and inspecting them for safety; we do not wait for boats to sink before requiring that they carry life jackets. We have enough knowledge about pollution to make ‘informed choices’.”

“When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

There are an estimated eighty-five thousand chemicals approved for market use today, from preservatives in our lipstick to flame retardants in our sofas, from plasticizers in our water bottles to pesticides on our fruit and vegetables. Astonishingly, less than ten percent of these chemicals have been researched for their effects on human health because their use was “grandfathered” into law when the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act was created in 1976. Nor have their multiple or cumulative effects been well studied. Many of us carry as many as one hundred chemicals in our bodies, yet we know next to nothing about the lifetime effects of exposure to this toxic mix of chemicals. Since test subjects are often animals or men, we sometimes don’t know the effects of toxins on women (and their reproductive systems) and on children, whose smaller size might make them more vulnerable to negative effects. In addition, without the Precautionary Principle in place, a great deal of scientific research is funded by the corporations that manufacture or use these chemicals, rather than by a government-accredited, independent laboratory. And that casts doubt on the quality of the data.

In spite of the lack of good research, we know that the release and use of toxic substances have had substantial, unintended consequences on human health and the environment. There is mounting evidence that many health problems are linked to exposure to environmental contaminants. Some of these include cancer, asthma, learning disabilities, autism, and birth defects. For instance, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, at least one in twelve, and as many as one in six, women of child-bearing age has enough mercury in her body to put her unborn child at risk. Other impacts include climate change, species extinctions, and ozone depletion.

Taking Our Own Precautions

Even if governments and corporations are playing fast and loose with our health and the environment, as individual consumers we can take our own precautionary approach that can help in small ways.

Whenever possible and affordable, we can buy organic – not only food, but personal care products, bedding, and clothing as well. Educating ourselves about the various label claims and insignias will help avoid greenwashing and false claims. If labels aren’t clear, we have a right to know and should demand answers from manufacturers and pressure governments for better labeling. We can grow some of our own food organically. We can take supplements that can counteract or protect us from the toxic effects of pollutants, and that boost the immune system. We should test and filter our family’s drinking water. We can eliminate the use of commercial household and laundry cleaners, instead making our own from simple, harmless materials. This magazine, our book Natural Life Magazine’s Green and Healthy Homes, and many other books and websites can help.

Beyond that, we must pressure governments to build the Precautionary Principle into legislation, and to test the effects of toxic chemicals – removing them from use when necessary. We must also pressure corporations to stop polluting our air, water, food, and the other products we buy. We must speak out and demand that our health be protected. Better safe than sorry. Thanks, mom!

Wendy Priesnitz is Natural Life Magazine's editor, and a journalist and author with over 40 years of experience.


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