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New Principle to Protect Human Health and the Environment

When it comes to activities that affect human health and the environment, "better safe than sorry" and "look before you leap" should be the guiding principles, say environmental leaders who met in Racine, Wisconsin, in late January, 1998.

At the conclusion of a three-day conference at Wingspread, headquarters of the Johnson Foundation, the diverse group issued a statement calling for government, corporations, communities and scientists to implement the "precautionary principle" in making decisions.

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

The 32 participants included treaty negotiators, activists, scholars and scientists from the United States, Canada and Europe. The conference was called to define and discuss implementing the precautionary principle, which has been used as the basis for a growing number of international agreements.

The idea of precaution underpins some U.S. policy, such as the requirement for environmental impact statements before major projects are launched using federal funds. But most existing laws and regulations focus on cleaning up and controlling damage rather than preventing it. The group concluded that these policies do not sufficiently protect people and the natural world.

Participants expressed alarm about growing problems such as learning deficiencies, cancer, and asthma as well as global climate change, species extinction and ozone depletion, which are often difficult to link with precise causes and predictable outcomes.

"The precautionary principle is common sense. We need to prevent questionable practices rather than simply dealing with their bad effects," said Ken Geiser of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. "We often don't know for sure what harm there will be until people have suffered or the damage is irreparable. Scientists don't want to say what will happen before they know for sure. By then, the damage is done."

"Most people think we already have the precautionary principle," said Diane Takvorian, a community organizer with the Environmental Health Coalition in San Diego, California. "Then something poisons their food or water or makes them ill and they are surprised. They are outraged that democracy doesn't seem to apply to their own health."

"Precaution is natural in our lives," said Gordon Durnil, a lawyer from Indianapolis, Indiana. "From my perspective as a conservative Republican, this is a conservative principle."

Durnil, who served during the Bush administration on a commission established to resolve problems between the United States and Canada, said, "I found a system that used scientific uncertainty as proof that no harm was possible. Many policy makers and many in the public believe that if you can't prove it is true, then it is not true."

Durnil said the commission learned that governments were stocking fish in the Great Lakes and then were warning people not to eat those fish. But when commissioners asked scientists what they knew about the effects of pollutants on public health and wildlife, scientists were reluctant to answer.

"Then we stopped asking scientists what they knew and started asking them what they believed," Durnil said. "That's when we began getting at the truth.

Carolyn Raffensperger, coordinator of a network that links scientists with environmental groups and issues, said the precautionary principle "has the potential to change how we make decisions about public health and the environment. This principle challenges business and government to think and act in a different way." Joel Tickner, also with the network, elaborated by saying "the challenge is to act on a suspicion of harm and be creative about those actions. Precautionary action may include pursuing safer alternatives, restricting or phasing out practices or substances, developing new "clean" technologies, or doing nothing at all."

Participants noted that current policies such as risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis give the benefit of the doubt to new products and technologies, which may later prove harmful. And when damage occurs, victims and their advocates have the difficult task of proving that a product or activity was responsible.

The precautionary principle shifts the burden of proof, insisting that those responsible for an activity must vouch for its harmlessness and be held responsible if damage occurs.

"The process of applying the precautionary principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties," the group's statement concluded.

Raffensperger added, "The role of science is essential. But the public must be fully involved. Informed consent is just as essential."

The conference was convened by the Science and Environmental Health Network, an organization that links science with the public interest, and by the Johnson Foundation, the W. Alton Jones Foundation, the C.S. Fund and the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle

The release and use of toxic substances, the exploitation of resources, and physical alterations of the environment have had substantial unintended consequences affecting human health and the environment. Some of these concerns are high rates of learning deficiencies, asthma, cancer, birth defects and species extinctions; along with global climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion and worldwide contamination with toxic substances and nuclear materials.

We believe existing environmental regulations and other decisions, particularly those based on risk assessment, have failed to protect adequately human health and the environment - the larger system of which humans are but a part.

We believe there is compelling evidence that damage to humans and the worldwide environment is of such magnitude and seriousness that new principles for conducting human activities are necessary.

While we realize that human activities may involve hazards, people must proceed more carefully than has been the case in recent history. Corporations, government entities, organizations, communities, scientists and other individuals must adopt a precautionary approach to all human endeavors.

Therefore, it is necessary to implement the Precautionary Principle: 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.

In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.

The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.

Wingspread Participants:

(Affiliations are noted for identification purposes only.)

Dr. Nicholas Ashford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Katherine Barrett, Univ. of British Columbia
Anita Bernstein, Chicago-Kent College of Law
Dr. Robert Costanza, University of Maryland
Pat Costner, Greenpeace
Dr. Carl Cranor, Univ. of California, Riverside
Dr. Peter deFur, Virginia Commonwealth Univ.
Gordon Durnil, attorney
Dr. Kenneth Geiser, Toxics Use Reduction Institute, Univ. of Mass., Lowell
Dr. Andrew Jordan, Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global
Environment, Univ. Of East Anglia, United Kingdom
Andrew King, United Steelworkers of America, Canadian Office, Toronto, Canada
Dr. Frederick Kirschenmann, farmer
Stephen Lester, Center for Health, Environment and Justice
Sue Maret, Union Institute
Dr. Michael M'Gonigle, University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Dr. Peter Montague, Environmental Research Foundation
Dr. John Peterson Myers, W. Alton Jones Foundation
Dr. Mary O'Brien, environmental consultant
Dr. David Ozonoff, Boston University
Carolyn Raffensperger, Science and Environmental Health Network
Hon. Pamela Resor, Massachusetts House of Representatives
Florence Robinson, Louisiana Environmental Network
Dr. Ted Schettler, Physicians for Social Responsibility
Ted Smith, Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition
Dr. Klaus-Richard Sperling, Alfred-Wegener- Institut, Hamburg, Germany
Dr. Sandra Steingraber, author
Diane Takvorian, Environmental Health Coalition
Joel Tickner, University of Mass., Lowell
Dr. Konrad von Moltke, Dartmouth College
Dr. Bo Wahlstrom, KEMI (National Chemical Inspectorate), Sweden
Jackie Warledo, Indigenous Environmental Network

For further information contact: Carolyn Raffensperger, Science and Environmental Health Network, Phone: 701-763-6286 E-mail:

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