Rachel's Precaution Reporter #1
Wednesday, August 31, 2005

From: Environmental Research Foundation ..................[This story printer-friendly]
August 29, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: Welcome to the first issue of Rachel's Precaution Reporter, intended to keep readers informed about the precautionary principle as it spreads world-wide and throughout the U.S.]

Welcome to the first issue of Rachel's Precaution Reporter (RPR), which is intended to keep you informed about the precautionary principle.

We will be publishing RPR as often as we can gather useful articles -- we expect it will appear about once a week. Each issue will contain two to five articles. (Incidentally, RPR will not replace Rachel's Environment & Health News, our best-known publication.)

As you know, the precautionary principle is a modern way of making decisions, to minimize harm. It is being discusssed and adopted around the world and within the U.S.

In Europe the precautionary principle has been championed by governments. However in the U.S., the precautionary principle developed from a different source. In the 1990s, after 20 years of grass-roots fights over toxic exposures justified by numerical risk assessments, the precautionary approach emerged from the grass-roots movement for environmental justice and the grass-roots toxics movement. Breast cancer activists have played an especially important role in advancing precaution in the U.S.

We think the precautionary principle is one of the most important social inventions of the 20th century because this simple idea can be applied to many problems besides toxic chemicals.

Perhaps because it is such a powerful, transformative idea, major opposition to the precautionary principle has now emerged.

RPR will offer you news and views about precaution, including published material from the opponents of precaution. We think it's essential to know what the opposition is saying.

If you come across good articles that illustrate the precautionary principle -- or reasons why we NEED the precautionary principle -- please Email them to us at: rpr@rachel.org.

We publish two editions of RPR: The TOC edition is merely a Table of Contents, with a brief description beneath each headline to help you decide whether a particular story interests you. The headlines are linked to the original source, somewhere out on the web.

The full HTML edition carries the same Table of Contents and brief descriptions, but it also includes the text of each article (making for a bulkier Email message). Although some web links in the TOC edition will grow stale rather quickly, the text of the stories in the full HTML edition will not disappear.

Both editions are Emailed to subscribers free of charge.

Please let us know what you think -- and be sure to send us any material you think precaution activists or advocates would find useful.

To subscribe, send a blank Email to either




In response, you will receive an Email asking you to confirm that you want to subscribe.

--Peter Montague and Tim Montague, editors


From: Grist ...............................................[This story printer-friendly]
January 9, 2001


An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

[Rachel's introduction: Donella Meadows asked, How should we proceed when the way ahead is murky? Speed up or slow down?]

By Donella H. Meadows

What do you do when you want to move fast but the way ahead is dark, possibly dangerous, and almost entirely unknown? Accelerate? Proceed with moderation? Slow way down? Stop?

That question underlies most environmental regulations. We are not sure what pesticides are doing to soils, waters, other creatures, or ourselves. We have only a vague idea what our rising greenhouse gas output will do to the climate. We're in the dark about the consequences of genetic engineering. So should we go ahead? How fast?

U.S. policy, and that of most other countries, has ranged from acceleration to moderation. Often the cost has been revealed only decades later, in the form of poisoned wells, sickened rivers, unhealthy air, dying wildlife, deformed babies. Now some governments are saying it makes more sense to slow down or stop.

The go-slow policy is hotly discussed in Europe and in the United Nations, but it is rarely mentioned in the U.S. news. It is called the "precautionary principle." The basic idea is familiar to everyone. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Look before you leap. If you can't afford to lose, don't gamble.

Or as a scientific gathering in 1998 put it: "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."

Or as Christine Todd Whitman put it, two months before George W. Bush appointed her to head the Environmental Protection Agency: "We must acknowledge that uncertainty is inherent in managing natural resources, recognize it is usually easier to prevent environmental damage than to repair it later, and shift the burden of proof away from those advocating protection toward those proposing an action that may be harmful."

If she meant that, she may be a historic EPA director.

U.S. environmental policy is based not on the precautionary principle, but on "risk management." That means balancing risks against benefits. If the benefits seem to outweigh the risks, full steam ahead. If a pesticide will give cancer to only one person in a million, but make a corporation a hundred million bucks, go for it.

There are two big problems with risk/benefit policy. The first is that those who bear the risk are rarely the ones who get the benefits. The second problem is that the benefits are usually much better known than the risks. It is astonishing how much we don't know about what we are doing.

See, for example, an article by 17 scientists from six countries in a recent Science magazine that summarizes the literature on climate change. It cites facts like this: In the past 100 years human fossil fuel burning has raised the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide higher than it has been for the previous 420,000 years -- and we're still accelerating.

The article repeats over and over that we do not know what that means for the planet. "As we drift further away from the domain that characterized the preindustrial Earth system, we severely test the limits of our understanding of how the Earth system will respond," say the authors. And "humans have affected virtually every major biogeochemical cycle, but the effects of these impacts on the interactions between these elemental cycles are poorly understood."

So, push the accelerator pedal to the floor?

Another Science article in December surveys what we know about the effects of genetically engineered organisms (GEOs). This article is another ode to uncertainty. "Neither the risks nor the benefits of GEOs are certain or universal." "Our ability to accurately predict ecological consequences, especially long-term higher-order interactions, increases the uncertainty associated with risk assessment." "Additional or unidentified benefits and risks may exist that published data do not yet address."

Should we turn hundreds of GEOs out of our labs and plant them on millions of acres of land?

Yet another recent Science article summarizes the findings of an expert panel on endocrine disrupters -- hormone-mimicking chemicals, including many pesticides and plasticizers. The panel concluded that incredibly tiny concentrations of these chemicals -- concentrations virtually all of us are exposed to -- can cause development problems in rat and mouse embryos. The findings are especially disturbing, because they contradict the basic assumption underlying all toxics policy: that a low enough dose of any poison is essentially harmless.

But the studies were done on lab animals. "How these results may relate to disease late in life in animals, let alone humans, is uncertain," says the article.

Shall we go on cranking out the chemicals?

Yes, say those who make money from them. No, says the precautionary principle. Plastics, pesticides, fossil fuels, gene-modified crops may make someone money and may save us all time or increase our convenience. But there are ways to proceed, probably more slowly, without them or with much less of them. It's not worth risking human health or the planetary functions that sustain us, just to keep going fast.

- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -

Donella H. Meadows (1941-2001) was an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College and director of the Sustainability Institute in Hartland, Vt.


From: Chronogram ..........................................[This story printer-friendly]
August 4, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: "Despite widespread adherence among the scientific community to the commonsense precautionary principle 'An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,' studies that look for links between breast cancer incidence and environmental factors are not commonplace."]

By Susan Piperato

Despite widespread adherence among the scientific community to the commonsense precautionary principle "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," studies that look for links between breast cancer incidence and environmental factors are not commonplace. "We are canaries in a coal mine, and we have been for years," says Hope Nemiroff, executive director of Breast Cancer Options (BCO), a grassroots organization offering information and support for women diagnosed with breast cancer, based in Ulster County. While breast cancer has become the "most commercialized illness with money being raised for the cure," she says, "even the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute admit they haven't spent enough time looking at the causes and why the disease happens in the first place."

That means pushing for research, both nationally and within our own community, says Nemiroff. Working toward the same goal are the Breast Cancer & Environmental Risk Factors program at Cornell University, and more than 20 fellow organizations (including Breast Cancer Options) that make up the New York State Breast Cancer Support and Education Network (co-directed by Andi Gladstone at 607-279-1043), a statewide coalition of organizations dedicated to providing support and education services to more than 100,000 women and their families affected by breast cancer, located from Buffalo to Long Island.

According to recent reports issued by the nation's leading cancer organizations (the American Cancer Society, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Cancer Institute, and North American Association of Central Cancer Registries), the risk of getting cancer is falling nationwide and survival rates for many cancers are improving, thanks to progress made by programs in prevention, early detection, and better treatments.

However, not all types of cancers, or regions, have benefited equally from such programs. In 2004, an estimated 40,000 women nationwide died of breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Breast cancer is now the most prevalent type of cancer for American women, as well as the top cause of cancer-related deaths among women ages 40 to 55.

Since 2003, New York State has held second place nationwide for breast cancer incidence and mortality rates. Annually in New York State, approximately 3,000 women die of breast cancer. Although Monroe County, in the northwestern area of the state, has the highest rates of breast cancer at 150 to 160 incidents per 100,000 women, rates for counties in the Hudson Valley region also show cause for concern.

According to the New York State Cancer Registry, overseen by the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH), Hudson Valley breast cancer incidence rates for 1996-2000 were 140 to 150 per 100,000 women (the highest rating) in Rensselaer and Rockland counties; 130 to 140 per 100,000 women in Ulster, Dutchess, Orange, Westchester, and Albany counties; 120 to 130 per 100,000 women in Greene and Sullivan counties; 110 to 120 per 100,000 women in Putnam and Columbia counties; and below 110 per 100,000 women in Delaware County (the lowest rating).

However, checking rates by zip code on the "Maps and Stats by Zip Code" menu of the website for the Program on Breast Cancer & Environmental Risk Factors (BCERF) at Cornell University, can turn up statistics that are potentially more alarming than those from the Cancer Registry. Some zip codes' rates fall below expected statistics; for example, from 1993 to 1997, there were 127 actual incidences of breast cancer reported in Kingston 12401, with the area's actual rate falling below its "expected" rate of 132.4. However, in nearby Woodstock, incidence rates are 15 to 49 percent higher than expected; and several areas near Kingston, including New Paltz, Pine Hill, Glenford, Hurley, and West Hurley, exceed their "expected" statistics by 50 to 100 percent.

Carmi Orenstein, educator and assistant director of BCERF, says, "In New York State we know [statistics] by county and zip code and it's often alarming," but adds, "cancer clusters," or areas of extremely high cancer incidence, are not necessarily being indicated. "There may be some small clusters, but an epidemiologist wouldn't call this a cancer cluster, that's for sure." Breast cancer, she explains, is a "multifactorial disease" with known and hypothetical risk factors, including protective or harmful changes in breast fat cells influenced by onset of menstruation, predisposition, age of first pregnancy, and whether a woman breast-feeds, as well as "every interaction a woman has with the environment," from ionizing radiation (which caused high rates of adult onset of breast cancer, for example, in Japanese infants and young women exposed to atomic bombing) to environmental estrogens (synthetic chemicals that "mimic" estrogen, cause endocrine disruption, and may stimulate cell division in the breast).

Nonetheless, BCERF's mission is to study the link between breast cancer incidence and exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals common in environmental pollution and pesticides, as well as conduct forums throughout New York State on "cancer-related issues that are important in a region, and report on what we're working on," says Orenstein. "We have a lot of diverse projects, like studying contaminants in the water supply. But the most important thing we do is get people from different agencies talking to each other and the public."

So, until both the cure and the causes for breast cancer are discovered, what do we Hudson Valley residents do to guard ourselves, our families, and our communities from breast cancer? "Learn to live defensively," says Nemiroff.

Become an Activist

"In order to get studies working and get answers, people really need to be involved," says Orenstein. The New York State Cancer Registry, located in Albany at the New York State Department of Health, collects, processes, and reports on information about every New Yorker diagnosed with cancer. To register or find out more about rates, visit their web site.

Since NYS Breast Cancer Network was formed, says Gladstone, breast cancer advocacy organizations have been able to influence public policy, including adding treatment coverage to the Healthy Women Partnerships program for mammography and other cancer screening for low-income and/or uninsured women; requiring state agencies to buy safe and sustainable products and services; and establishing a statewide health tracking and biomonitoring program. "This monitors people's toxic loads in different areas of the state and correlates illness incidence with what's going on with the individuals and pollution," she says. The network also helped draft legislation for the Neighbor Notification Law requiring 24 hours' notice be given before spraying pesticides. The only problem: the law is county- optional, and so far, only seven counties -- Albany, Erie, Nassau, Rockland, Suffolk, Tompkins, and Westchester -- have signed on.

Get informed

In a study published last month by the Environmental Working Group, researchers at two major laboratories found a total of 287 types of industrial chemicals and pollutants in umbilical cord blood from 10 babies born during August and September 2004 in US hospitals -- including pesticides, consumer product ingredients, brominated flame retardants used in clothes and textiles, and stain and oil repellants found in fast food packaging, clothing, and furnishings.

Chemicals possibly related to cancer can be found in surprising places, says Nemiroff. Breast Cancer Options' 2005 Breast Cancer Risk Reduction Calendar lists the top anticancer and lowest-in-pesticides foods, along with 125 chemicals with which most people are unfamiliar -- found in everything from makeup to cleansers -- and gives hints on how to keep house and eat safely.

The BCERF Cancer and Environment Forum will take place on Friday, September 30, 10am-3pm, at 711A Legislative Office Building, Albany. Call (607) 255-1185 for more information.

Copyright 2005 Luminary Publishing, Inc.


From: Truth About Trade & Technology ..................[This story printer-friendly]
August 16, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: This sophisticated attack on the precautionary principle says it will undermine democracy, restrict trade, and increase baseless government regulations.]

By Gary E. Marchant and Kenneth L. Mossman

Killer cranberry juice? Toxic corn flakes? Hazardous energy drinks? Only under a loose concept known as the precautionary principle, which has swept across Europe.

This precautionary principle gives regulators broad authority to err on the side of safety and puts the burden of proof on the proponents of a technology to prove its safety. The European Union officially adopted the precautionary principle in 1992 as a binding legal requirement for all health, safety, and environmental regulatory decisions. Most recently, the French Parliament in February incorporated it into the French national constitution.

The concept of the precautionary principle may sound relatively innocuous. Who can argue against being safe rather than sorry? But the idea is flawed in theory and practice, and the enshrinement of the precautionary principle sets Europe down a path that will wreak havoc on the economy and public health of not only itself but also its trading partners.

For example, the European Union and its member nations for the past six years relied on the precautionary principle to justify a de facto moratorium on the approval of any new genetically modified foods -- a moratorium that has only recently, slowly, and grudgingly begun to be relaxed. Even though its own scientific advisers had found that genetically modified foods have no known risks and are probably safer than conventional foods, the European Union prohibited genetically modified foods based on the precautionary principle.

The U.S. government says that this EU ban costs the United States $300 million per year in lost food exports, and it has filed a legal action against the moratorium under international trade laws. The World Trade Organization is expected to issue an initial ruling by the end of this year.


More generally, the precautionary principle suffers from at least three major intellectual flaws.

First, there are dozens of formulations of the principle promulgated by regulators, courts, academics, and nongovernmental organizations in the European Union and elsewhere. These formulations differ in important details, such as whether and how costs should be considered, whether all risks or only "serious and irreversible" risks raise concerns, and what steps a product manufacturer must undertake to satisfy the principle. There is no single or official version of the precautionary principle.

Yet the European Union purports to apply "the" precautionary principle. The Treaty of the European Union, as amended in 1992, states simply that "community policy on the environment... shall be based on the precautionary principle." The ambiguity resulting from this failure to specify which version of the principle is to be applied opens the door to its arbitrary application.

Second, most versions of the precautionary principle fail to give adequate weight to scientific evidence or consideration of costs and trade-offs. Some precaution is prudent and indeed essential for all environmental, health, and safety regulation. But too much precaution, especially if it ignores the financial costs, opportunity costs, and risk trade-offs of excessive regulation, can result in unreasonable decisions that do more harm than good.

Finally, the precautionary principle provides no limits on the application of precaution, in that it provides no risk targets or safe harbors that could exempt a product from further precautionary action. As such, the principle could theoretically be applied to prohibit any or every product or activity, since it is impossible to prove zero risk for anything. Yet, obviously, the precautionary principle will not be invoked to ban every product.

So it ends up being applied in an unprincipled and arbitrary manner. In some cases, economic protectionism seems to be the deciding factor; in others, officials appear to be bowing to irrational public fears.


The precautionary principle has already unleashed a wave of absurd and arbitrary risk decisions since the European Union adopted it in 1992.

We recently analyzed more than 60 decisions by EU courts in the 1995-2004 period, in which the precautionary principle was cited. (The results are explained more fully in our 2004 book, Arbitrary and Capricious: The Precautionary Principle in the European Courts.) We found that despite using the precautionary principle to decide several important cases, the EU courts failed to define or articulate the specific requirements or meaning of this principle. They simply invoked it as a wild card that justified whatever decision they wanted to make.

In some cases the courts acted quite sensibly to overturn regulatory decisions by individual nations where the precautionary principle lacked any scientific justification. For example, Denmark relied on the precautionary principle to ban cranberry-juice drinks because the added vitamin C could potentially be harmful to some unusually susceptible individuals. The EU Court of First Instance initially upheld this ban, writing that "a plausible public-health risk is enough, according to the precautionary principle." But the appellate European Court of Justice overturned the ban in 2003, holding that, notwithstanding the precautionary principle, an EU member nation that seeks to ban a product must demonstrate a "real risk" that is "sufficiently established on the basis of the latest scientific data."

Similarly, an EU court in 2001 overturned a decision by Norway to ban corn flakes fortified with several essential vitamins -- a ban that the Norwegian government had justified under the precautionary principle because "the fortification in question might be a health hazard when eaten in uncontrollable and unforeseen amounts." Yet another court decision in 2004 overturned a regulation by France banning caffeinated energy drinks because the caffeine could potentially harm pregnant women. The courts concluded that these regulations based on the precautionary principle were unjustified departures from reasoned decision-making that lacked any credible scientific support.


Certainly the EU courts have not always seen through weak precautionary principle arguments, choosing instead to join regulatory agencies in applying the principle in unreasonable ways.

For example, the Court of First Instance in 2002 used the precautionary principle to uphold the EU ban on using virginiamycin -- an antibiotic widely sold by Pfizer -- in animal feed even though the product had been used for 40 years without showing any signs of danger. The court's opinion started reasonably, stating that even under the precautionary principle, the European Union's proposed feed ban must be based on "as thorough a scientific risk assessment as possible" to ensure that regulations are "founded on objective and sound scientific findings." But the court then found that the ban was justified by a risk assessment made by a scientific advisory committee, even though that committee had "firmly" concluded that there would be no risk from the continued use of virginiamycin while further studies on the safety of the antibiotic were completed.

The court held that under the precautionary principle, the European Union was justified in departing from the expert scientific opinion "on the ground that it was in the interests of human health protection." The perplexing outcome of this case: While EU regulations require a valid, scientific risk assessment, the European Union can adopt a regulation directly contrary to the conclusions of that assessment by invoking the precautionary principle.

In another case, the European Court of Justice in 2000 held a company criminally liable for producing a hazardous waste that did not even meet the European Union's own regulatory criteria for a hazardous waste. Although the applicable EU rules explicitly stated that a company could be held liable only for hazardous wastes that met the regulatory criteria, the court decided that the precautionary principle justified ignoring statutory construction, due process, and fair-notice concerns. The court's decision upheld the opinion of its advocate general, who argued that "determining in advance and in a limitative manner the circumstances requiring the intervention of public authorities to avert a specific risk to the environment" would be contrary to the precautionary principle.

In still other cases, EU courts dismissed the precautionary principle as an insignificant and irrelevant provision that added nothing to the pre-existing statutory requirements. For example, in one 2001 decision rejecting France's attempt to block imports of British beef based on fears of mad cow disease, the European Court of Justice stated that France's invocation of the precautionary principle to justify its import ban "added nothing" to its argument.

In short, depending on the inclinations of individual judges, the precautionary principle can vary anywhere from an absolutist, extreme measure that mandates zero risk to an empty concept that has no substantive effect on decisions.


Thus, the track record of the precautionary principle in Europe is not good. Given its inherent flaws and ambiguity, the principle cannot be sustained in the long run. As the EU courts' advocate general warned in one opinion, "The precautionary principle has a future only to the extent that, far from opening the door wide to irrationality, it establishes itself as an aspect of the rational management of risks, designed not to achieve zero risk, which everything suggests does not exist."

Yet despite this troubling empirical record, there seems to be no letup in the proliferation of the precautionary principle around the world. Courts in Canada, India, Australia, and New Zealand have recently endorsed this principle. Several international environmental treaties, such as the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, expressly incorporate the precautionary principle.

San Francisco recently became the first U.S. city to officially adopt the precautionary principle, requiring by ordinance that "All officers, boards, commissions, and departments of the City and County shall implement the Precautionary Principle in conducting the City and County's affairs." Several other U.S. cities are reportedly considering following suit.

Decisions about regulating risks involve a complex interaction of science, public policy, values, economics, incentives, precautions, and uncertainty. Attempting to replace the admittedly difficult and messy steps needed to reach the best possible risk decisions with a simplistic slogan like the precautionary principle is inconsistent with fundamental tenets of democracy. The inherent ambiguity and arbitrariness of the principle give regulators unfettered discretion to adopt unreasonable regulations, contrary to the greater principle that we have a government of laws, not men.

The precautionary principle is an open invitation for nations to impose protectionist restrictions on trade, for regulators to write burdensome rules based on bias or emotion, and for companies to lobby for unfair restrictions on their competitors. Moreover, because the principle does not provide a meaningful foundation for making risk decisions, the true basis for these decisions is kept hidden, undermining the transparency and public accountability critical to democratic government. In short, the rapidly proliferating precautionary principle is bound to inflict a lot more damage around the world before it finally and inevitably collapses upon itself.


Rachel's Precaution Reporter offers news, views and practical examples of the Precautionary Principle, or Foresight Principle, in action. The Precautionary Principle is a modern way of making decisions, to minimize harm. Rachel's Precaution Reporter tries to answer such questions as, Why do we need the precautionary principle? Who is using precaution? Who is opposing precaution?

We often include attacks on the precautionary principle because we believe it is essential for advocates of precaution to know what their adversaries are saying, just as abolitionists in 1830 needed to know the arguments used by slaveholders.

Rachel's Precaution Reporter is published as often as necessary to provide readers with up-to-date coverage of the subject.

As you come across stories that illustrate the precautionary principle -- or the need for the precautionary principle -- please Email them to us at rpr@rachel.org.

Peter Montague - peter@rachel.org
Tim Montague - tim@rachel.org


To start your own free Email subscription to Rachel's Precaution Reporter send a blank Email to one of these addresses:

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