Precautionary principle important for decision-makers, new research shows

The European Environment Agency has published a new report that looks at how the precautionary principle has, or hasn’t been applied to a wide range of public health hazards over the past century, ranging from chemical contamination of the Great Lakes and mad cow disease to ozone layer damage.

The report, Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896-2000, looks at problems that have arisen in Europe and the US, and is intended to help improve mutual understanding between the two regions on the often-disputed use of the precautionary principle in policy making.

Twelve key lessons for decision-making have emerged from the EEA’s analysis of the 14 case studies in the report, which were contributed by experts. These showed public policy being set against a background of scientific uncertainty or surprise developments, or clear evidence of hazards to people and the environment being ignored.

The case studies highlight regulatory inaction that had costly and unpredicted consequences for human health and the environment or cases where early warnings, and even ‘loud and late’ warnings of problems were ignored.

Further case studies from a range of well-known hazards, several with environmental implications, include the use of asbestos, CFCs, and the chemicals benzene, MTBE, tributyl tin and PCBs; and air pollution from sulphur dioxide.

The consequences range from hundreds of thousands of deaths from mesothelioma, a cancer caused by inhalation of asbestos, to the over-exploitation and collapse of fisheries in Canada, California and Scotland, which had devastating impacts on local communities.

The authors were asked to structure their chapters around four key questions:

  • What was the first credible scientific ‘early warning’ of potential harm?
  • When and what were the main actions or inactions on risk reduction taken by regulatory authorities or others?
  • What were the resulting costs and benefits of the actions or inactions, including their distribution between groups and across time?
  • What lessons can be drawn that may help future decision making?

When drawing conclusions about how well the cases were handled, the authors were asked to look at them from the ‘spirit of the times’ rather than modern hindsight. The EEA also tried to research some ‘false positives’ – case studies where precautions had later been discovered to be unnecessary, but could not find any that were strong enough for inclusion. Possibilities for future examination include the dumping of sewage sludge in the North Sea and the Y2K Millennium Bug.

The 12 ‘late lessons’ are:

  • acknowledge and respond to ignorance, as well as uncertainty and risk, in technology appraisal and public policy-making;
  • provide adequate long-term environmental and health monitoring and research into early warnings;
  • identify and work to reduce blind spots and gaps in scientific knowledge;
  • identify and reduce interdisciplinary obstacles to learning;
  • ensure that real world conditions are adequately accounted for in regulatory appraisal;
  • systematically scrutinise the claimed justifications and benefits alongside the potential risks;
  • evaluate a range of alternative options for meeting needs alongside the option under appraisal, and promote more robust, diverse and adaptable technologies so as to minimise the costs of surprises and maximise the benefits of innovation;
  • ensure use of ‘lay’ and local knowledge, as well as relevant specialist expertise in the appraisal;
  • take full account of the assumptions and values of different social groups;
  • maintain regulatory independence from interested parties while retaining an inclusive approach to information and opinion gathering;
  • identify and reduce institutional obstacles to learning and action; and
  • avoid ‘paralysis by analysis’ by acting to reduce potential harm when there are reasonable grounds for concern.

“Our central conclusion is that the very difficult task of maximising innovation whilst minimising hazards to people and their environments could be undertaken more successfully in future if the 12 ‘late lessons’ drawn from the histories of the hazards studied in this report were heeded,” said EEA Executive Director Domingo Jiménez-Beltrán.

“The case studies show how harmful and costly misuse or neglect of the precautionary principle can be. But over-precaution can also be expensive, in terms of lost opportunities for innovation and lost lines of scientific enquiry,” said Poul Harremoës, Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering at the Technical University of Denmark and chair of the report’s editorial team.

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