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For the week of February 13 - 19, 2002

  Opinion Column

The Public and the Precautionary Principle

Nor is the Precautionary Principle new. It is seen in such common-sense aphorisms as "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," "Better safe than sorry," and "Look before you leap."

Express Staff Writer

In 1854 there was a cholera epidemic in London, England. Many people died and nobody knew the biological cause of the disease. Dr. John Snow, a London physician, made a map of the locations of the deaths to see if there was a discernible pattern. He found that the majority of the deaths took place within 250 yards of a public water pump. Without having irrefutable scientific proof, but possessed of good instincts and common sense, Snow suspected that the water from the pump was the source of the contagion. He had the handle removed, making the pump inoperable. The plague ended.

This is one of the earliest and best known examples of the use of the Precautionary Principle to protect the health of the public. Precautionary Principle is short for the "principle of precautionary action," which was eloquently explicated in a statement in 1998 by an international group of scientists, government officials, lawyers and labor and environmental activists after a meeting in Racine, Wis. The gathering was called the Wingspread meeting.

It was deemed necessary as a response to what the group sees as a primary danger to the health of the planet and its inhabitants. Its statement reads in part, "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…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."

Among many other disturbing, destructive and dangerous failures which led to that belief are Love Canal, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Thalidomide, DDT, species extinction throughout the world, and man-induced stratospheric ozone depletion and global climate change. Closer to home are the resultant high rates of learning deficiencies, asthma, leukemia, cancer, birth defects and other ailments which, like the London water pump of 1854, are grouped around sources of radiation, asbestos, pesticides, chemical dumps and industrial pollution.

Part of the Wingspread statement reads, "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."

Indeed, the public so often bears the burden of proof in the role of test subjects, human guinea pigs who are expendable, replaceable and, under current law, powerless. A study by the Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention concluded that only 2 percent of cancer deaths are caused by industrial toxins released into the environment. Only 2 percent is 11,000 people a year in the United States whose horrible, painful and unnecessary deaths can be scientifically attributed to industrial toxins. A case could be made that these 11,000 deaths represent a form of homicide. A case could be made that these deaths represent a form of terrorism. Each year, at least three times the number of people who died in the horror of Sept. 11 are killed in America by industrial toxins in the environment. Instinct and common sense says the number is much higher.

Unfortunately, there is no war against this type of terrorism. The reasons for this apathy are complex and involve things like campaign finance reform and decisions based on what is called "risk assessment." Wingspread participant Joe Tickner of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, said that decisions based on risk assessment asks questions like "How safe is safe? What level of risk is acceptable? How much contamination can a human or ecosystem assimilate without showing any obvious adverse effects?"

Corporate risk assessment is not new. It is reflected in such ancient aphorisms as "Nothing ventured, nothing gained" and "Let the devil take the hindmost." Nor is the Precautionary Principle new. It is seen in such common-sense aphorisms as "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," "Better safe than sorry," and "Look before you leap."

The world is sorry, and a sorry place, and paying many pounds of cure for the past follies of the nuclear industry, the horrors released into the environment by the chemical industry, and the on going irresponsibility of the asbestos and mining industries, among others. And now those same industries, and even some of the same companies, have assessed the risks to the public and environment and decided there is money to be made in genetically modified foods. Critics of genetically modified foods, the seeds they grow from, the seed companies that sell the seed to farmers and the chemical companies that own the seed companies would like to see the Precautionary Principle applied to the genetic manipulation of the food we eat and of the environment we all live in.

So would I. Wouldn’t you?


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.