Rachel's Precaution Reporter #10
Wednesday, November 2, 2005

From: San Francisco Chronicle .............................[This story printer-friendly]
June 18, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: In June, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to take public health and environmental stewardship into consideration when purchasing products -- from toilet paper to computers. This levels the playing field for "green" businesses, making it easier for them to compete.]

San Francisco became the first city in the nation Friday [June 17, 2005] to enact a law that requires the city to take public health and environmental stewardship into consideration when purchasing products -- from toilet paper to computers.

The law, which goes by the cumbersome name of Environmentally Preferable Purchasing for Commodities Ordinance, requires city departments to buy products that do as little harm as possible to people and the Earth.

The potential reach of the ordinance is far, from jail uniforms to office carpeting, from street-cleaning suds to construction materials.

The city makes about $600 million in purchases a year to supply City Hall, the Hall of Justice, fire and police stations, the parks and other municipal operations.

"By exercising our economic power, San Francisco can encourage market development of new products which are healthier and more environmentally friendly," said Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, who worked three years to get the new law on the books.

Mayor Gavin Newsom made it official with his signature during a ceremony in his office attended by environmentalists and public health advocates. The law, he said, "basically says it's better to be safe than sorry... as it relates to our purchasing powers in the City and County of San Francisco."

City officials say one of the goals is for the law to be used as a model for other jurisdictions. The more that sign on, the more economic incentive manufacturers will have to make environmentally friendly products.

From now on, San Francisco will look at such things as whether products can be recycled, whether they pollute the air or water, their energy efficiency and whether they emit toxic substances that have been found to endanger public health.

The program has been tested on an limited basis for the past several years, and officials report that desirable products are available, and usually don't cost more.

As an example, the city buys 87,000 fluorescent light tubes a year and recently put in an order for ones produced with the least amount of mercury, a toxic substance. The ordinance will not affect every purchase overnight. Instead, when specific products come up for bid the regulations may kick in.

The Department of the Environment, working with community groups, technical experts and other city staff, will set priorities for which products should be assessed for application of the ordinance.

"We may decide as a community that computers are our next item that we want to look at through the lens of environmental and public health," said Debbie Raphael, the city's toxics reduction program manager.

"Traditionally, we have a list of specifications we use to decide which computer to buy," she said. "Those specifications do not include things like how much lead is in them? Can you recycle them? What is their energy use? What it does not mean is that cost and performance is ignored. We're expanding the universe of criteria."

The Department of the Environment will identify products that present threats to human health and the environment and then identify comparably priced nontoxic alternatives that city departments will be allowed to buy. If the product proves too expensive, the department can request a waiver from the city purchaser to buy the cheaper, though more toxic, product.

E-mail Rachel Gordon at rgordon@sfchronicle.com

Page B-2

Copyright 2005 San Francisco Chronicle


From: Christian Science Monitor ...........................[This story printer-friendly]
October 27, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: "The region's elected officials and agencies now address climate change here on the basis of the 'precautionary principle' -- acknowledging that they do not know everything about the long-range effects of global warming, but are taking steps now before it's too late."]

By Brad Knickerbocker

ASHLAND, ORE. -- It's unlikely that Seattle's 605-foot Space Needle will be under water any time soon, or that Alaska will become as famous for its fruit trees and berries as Oregon is.

But there are growing indications that the Pacific Northwest, from Oregon to British Columbia to Alaska, is warming up faster than elsewhere on the planet -- a trend that's likely to accelerate, according to scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Glaciers and snowpacks in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains are shrinking. So is Arctic sea ice in Alaska, where the permafrost in some areas is turning mushy. Record-setting temperatures in Anchorage this summer reached a balmy 79 degrees F. Water levels in Puget Sound are rising. Annual patters of stream flow are changing in ways that could adversely impact irrigation, domestic water supplies, fish runs, and hydropower production, while increasing the risk of forest fires and tree-killing insects.

In Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia, this week, agency officials, scientists, tribal leaders, and others are participating in major conferences addressing climate change.

"Even the most conservative scenarios show the climate of the Pacific Northwest warming significantly more than was experienced during the 20th century," the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group reported last week. The Puget Sound region warmed at a rate "substantially greater" than that of Earth's average surface air temperature, the scientists found.

Brad Ack, director of the Puget Sound Action Team, a partnership of federal, state, and tribal agencies that commissioned the report, likens what's happening to a "slow-motion natural disaster."

"This is often talked about as something that's going to happen," says Mr. Ack. "But what this shows is that this is already happening. We're well into climate change."

Economists in the region warn that this could come with a big price tag. Global warming "is likely to impose significant economic costs," 52 leading economists from around the country warned in a recent letter to government and business officials in Oregon.

"The adjustments that businesses, households, and communities will have to make are without precedent," the economists wrote. "Many changes seem largely unavoidable, and some are clearly imminent."

That's mainly because of diminishing snowpacks due to warmer winter temperatures. Snowpacks act as water "banks" throughout the region, but smaller snowpacks mean reduced river and stream flows in the summer, which negatively affect agriculture, forestry, tourism, and hydropower -- major portions of Oregon's $121 billion economy.

Changes in nature from global warming also can exacerbate environmental problems, especially the natural balance in ecosystems and the wildlife they include.

"Climate change is an additional stress to systems that have already been affected and changed by human activities," says Amy Snover, a research scientist and member of the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group.

Politically, the region -- sometimes referred to as "Cascadia" - appears to have heard the message.

Since February, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels has been pushing his colleagues in city halls around the country to sign the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.

That pact commits them to meet or exceed the Kyoto Protocol standards, reducing greenhouse gas emissions 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. So far, 186 US mayors -- from Issaquah, Wash. to Laredo, Texas to Schenectady, N.Y. -- have signed on.

While it still relies heavily on hydropower dams for electricity (which have environmental problems of a different sort -- mainly profound damage to ecosystems that support endangered salmon and other wildlife), Washington State has been building wind farms in its wide- open spaces east of the Cascade Mountains.

In Oregon, Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) is pushing state lawmakers and reluctant auto dealers to adopt California's tougher emission standards for motor vehicles, enacted last year. If Oregon takes that step, Washington State, which shares the market for cars and trucks with its neighbor to the south, will do so also.

Portland, Ore. and surrounding Multnomah County have nudged carbon dioxide emissions to a level below 1990, a first for any major American city.

With help from two new light-rail public transit lines, the planting of some 750,000 carbon-absorbing trees, financial incentives for energy-efficient "green" buildings, and weatherization of more than 10,000 apartments and houses, per capita emissions in Portland dropped 13 percent over the past 10 years. Nationally, there's been an increase of about 1 percent per capita.

Mayor Tom Potter, the city's former police chief, drives a Prius hybrid and promotes Portland as a bike-friendly city with 750 miles of bicycle paths.

Still, officials and scientists around the region agree that more needs to be done.

"We can no longer stop this," says Ack. "We can hope to ameliorate it by mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, but we cannot stop this. So either we ignore it and suffer, or we prepare for it and suffer less."

Urged on by the group of economists, the region's elected officials and agencies now address climate change here on the basis of the "precautionary principle" -- acknowledging that they do not know everything about the long-range effects of global warming, but are taking steps now before it's too late.

"It's about hedging," says Dr. Snover. "It's about risk management. It's about acknowledging that uncertainty is not going to go away, expecting to meet surprises, being prepared for that change and designing flexibility right in."

Copyright 2005 The Christian Science Monitor


From: Associated Press ...................................[This story printer-friendly]
October 13, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: Philadelphia has set a goal -- to end homelessness in 10 years -- and is now evaluating ways to get there. That's foresight in action.]

PHILADELPHIA -- City officials announced a 10-year plan to eradicate homelessness in Philadelphia after meeting with advocates and others trying to best tackle the problem.

Mayor John F. Street said $10 million in city, state and federal funds have already been earmarked for the plan. However, he said that it was unclear where additional funding will come from in subsequent years, and how much will be needed beyond the initial amount identified.

"The political will is here," Robert Hess, a city deputy managing director, said Wednesday. "Can we be the first American city to end homelessness? Yes, we can."

Street estimated that about 400 people currently are homeless in downtown Philadelphia. That is up from recent years, though still fewer than half the number from 1998, Street said.

The $10 million is in addition to the $64 million annual budget of Philadelphia's emergency services office and $30 million annually in other funds for counseling and medical care to the homeless.

The plan came together as officials talked with 300 people citywide, including advocates for the homeless, about how to best tackle the problem, Hess said.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press


From: American Council on Science & Health (ACSH) .....[This story printer-friendly]
June 25, 2002


[Rachel's introduction: Henry I. Miller is one of the most flamboyant opponents of the precautionary principle. He is a professor at Stanford University who rarely lets mere facts stand in the way of a good yarn about the dangers of foresight and forecaring.]

By Henry I. Miller, M.D.

It used to be said that the most fearsome statement in the world is, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you." Now, government officials have the "precautionary principle," which supposedly will make our lives safer. In fact, the principle -- which is not really a principle at all but a seemingly plausible excuse for opposing innovation -- has already laid waste to several industries and boasts a body count in the millions.

The Environmental Protection Agency has just provided another egregious example: a crackdown on the most reliable kind of blood pressure cuffs -- which I and other doctors consider to be the standard for accuracy -- in order to cut down on the use of mercury, which can pollute the air and water if disposed of carelessly.

The basic idea of the precautionary principle, which the EPA and other regulatory agencies often employ senselessly, is that even if there is no scientific evidence of actual dangers of a product, technology or activity, merely conjectural concerns should be a reason to limit or prohibit it. For example, although used for decades, I have never heard of a mercury spill from a broken blood pressure cuff. In any event mercury toxicity under these conditions would be modest. The EPA's action is ill-considered, myopic and dangerous: Inaccurate blood pressure measurements can lead to under- or over-medication of a person with a life-threatening disease.

The precautionary principle is sometimes represented as being like Mom's admonition "better safe than sorry," or is said to reflect regulators' remonstrations that they're just "erring on the side of safety." But the way the precautionary principle is typically applied can actually increase risk.

The principle focuses on the possibility that technologies could pose unique or unmanageable risks, even after considerable testing has already been conducted. Missing from precautionary calculus is an acknowledgment that even when technologies introduce risks, most confer net benefits -- that is, their use reduces many other, more serious hazards. The danger in the precautionary principle is that it distracts from known threats to health. For example, in eighteenth- century Europe, excessive precautionary bias delayed for decades the introduction of the first smallpox vaccine, while millions died unnecessarily.

And thirty years ago, on the basis only of suspicion of toxicity to fish and migrating birds (but no evidence of harm to humans), the EPA drastically restricted production and use of DDT, an inexpensive and stunningly effective pesticide once widely used to kill mosquitoes and other disease-carrying insects. With the ensuing reduction of global DDT use, the World Health Organization estimates that 300 million to 500 million cases of malaria occur annually and more than one million people die. (See our article "DDT and Chemophobia" and ACSH's press release and report on the DDT ban.)

Another horrendous example of the precautionary principle in action occurred in the late 1980s, when environmental activists, claiming that carcinogenic byproducts from the chlorination of drinking water posed a potential cancer risk, persuaded Peruvian officials to stop chlorinating much of their country's drinking water. That decision contributed to the acceleration and spread of Latin America's 1991-96 cholera epidemic, which afflicted more than 1.3 million people.

Anti-chlorine campaigners recently have focused their attacks on certain plastics used for important medical devices, particularly fluid containers, blood bags, tubing and gloves; children's toys such as teething rings; and household and industrial items including flooring. Invoking the precautionary principle, activists claim that these plastics might have numerous adverse health effects -- even in the face of significant scientific evidence to the contrary.

Whole industries have been terrorized, consumers denied product choices, and doctors and their patients deprived of lifesaving tools. The precautionary principle inflates the cost of research, inhibits new product development, wastes resources, restricts consumer choice, creates serious new risks, and costs lives.

Just thinking about it raises my blood pressure.

Henry I. Miller, a physician, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and a Director of the American Council on Science and Health. He was an official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from 1979 to 1994.


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


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