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The Precautionary Principle. Peter Saunders King’s College London & Institute of Science in Society. Wingspread (1998).

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The precautionary principle

The Precautionary Principle

Peter Saunders

King’s College London


Institute of Science in Society

Wingspread 1998
Wingspread (1998)

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 european commission 2000
The European Commission (2000)

The Precautionary Principle applies “where preliminary objective scientific evaluation indicates that there are reasonable grounds for concern …”

  • The principle is to be applied when

  • there is scientific evidence for a threat to the environment or to health, but

  • the evidence, while sound, is not conclusive.

  • What is crucial is that there must be a prima facie scientific case for a threat. If there is not, then nothing happens.

    • (though it might for other reasons!)

Common criticisms
Common criticisms

Ill defined: The term can mean almost anything

Vacuous: Does not lead to definite decisions

Too weak – contributes nothing that is not already there, eg in risk assessment

Too strong – will stop progress dead in its tracks

Anti-scientific – mostly about unscientific prejudice

Merely an excuse for protectionism

The issues are better dealt with in the courts

Late lessons from early warnings – the precautionary principle 1896-2000 (ed P Harramoës et al)

European Environment Agency ISBN 92-9167-323-4


Fisheries, radiation, benzene, asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), halocarbons, diethylstilboestrol (DES), antimicrobials as growth promoters, sulphur dioxide, chemical contamination in the Great Lakes, tributyltin (TCB) antifoulants, hormones as growth promoters, BSE

Tobacco principle 1896-2000

The principle would not have prevented the introduction of tobacco by Sir Walter Raleigh

But it would have made a big difference after Sir Richard Doll’s work

Is A really the cause of B? The Bradford Hill Criteria principle 1896-2000

Strength of association: Is there good correlation between A and B?

Consistency: If there is more than one study, is there consistency?

Specificity: Does B occur when and only when A does? Temporality: Does A come before B? (Not as trivial as it sounds!)

Dose response: Does increasing A increase B?

Plausibility: If there is no known mechanism,

is it at least plausible that there could be one?

Coherence: Does the claim that A causes B seriously conflict

with what we know about B?

Experiment: If we change A, does B change as well?

Analogy: Are there analogous examples?

Bradford Hill insisted this is not a check list!

Asbestos principle 1896-2000

First mined in Canada in 1879

In 1898, Lucy Deane, one of the first Women Inspectors

of Factories, included asbestos work as one of the four dusty occupations to come under observation that year

“on account of their easily demonstrated danger to the health of workers and because of ascertained cases of injury to bronchial tubes and lungs medically attributed to the employment of the sufferer.”

She continued: principle 1896-2000

“the evil effects of asbestos dust have also instigated a microscopic examination of the mineral dust by HM Medical Inspector. Clearly revealed was the sharp glass-like jagged nature of the particles, and where they are allowed to rise and so to remain suspended in the air of the room in any quantity, the effects have been found to be injurious, as might have been expected.”

Lucy Deane, 1898. Exactly 100 years later, asbestos was banned in the UK and France

Given that the dynamics of science are not predictable, principle 1896-2000

it is important to consider the dangers of excessive precaution.

One of those is the threat to technological innovation.

Imagine it is 1850 and the following version of the

precautionary principle is adopted: no innovation shall be

approved for use until it is proven safe, with the burden of

proving safety placed on the technologist. Under this system,

what would have happened to electricity, the internal

combustion engine, plastics, pharmaceuticals, the Internet,

the cell phone and so forth?

The Perils of the Precautionary Principle:

Lessons from the American and European Experience

John D. Graham, The Heritage Foundation

Bst bovine somatotrophin
BST principle 1896-2000 (Bovine Somatotrophin)

Hormones need only be present in very small amounts to have significant effects

Hormones can act across species

BST does not replicate the activity of hGH in humans

and is largely destroyed by pasteurisation

But it increases the production of ‘insulin-like growth factors’ in cattle and these are not destroyed

High levels of IGF-I in humans are associated with a greater risk of cancer

Hormones often have more than one function

The antiprecautionary principle
The Antiprecautionary Principle principle 1896-2000

No measures may be taken against any activity unless

it can be proven to be harmful to human health or the

environment. The responsibility for establishing this

lies with the public.

UK 2008 White Paper on Nuclear Power principle 1896-2000

During the course of our consultation in July 2007, a separate

report identified that leukaemia rates were higher in children

and young people living near nuclear facilities141. However,

it concluded that there was no clear explanation for this and

that further research is needed before firm conclusions can be

drawn from the report. A report was also published by the

German Federal Office for Radiation Protection on a study into

childhood cancers in the vicinity of nuclear power stations in

Germany142. The report concluded that whilst in Germany it

believes that there is a correlation between the distance of the

child’s home from the nearest nuclear power station and the

risk of developing leukaemia, it did not follow that ionising

radiation emitted by German nuclear power stations was the

cause. Childhood cancer is also related to socio-economic

factors and this does not seem to have been taken into account

in the German study. The study also covers a relatively small

sample in comparison to COMARE’s 11th report which contains

32,000 cases.

What COMARE’s 11 principle 1896-2000 th Report actually says:

COMARE’s Tenth Report (COMARE, 2005) reviewed the evidence relating to childhood cancers in the vicinity of the major licensed nuclear sites (power stations and other nuclear installations) in Great Britain ( This is also dealt with further in this volume

(Chapter 5). There was no evidence of excess numbers of cases in any local 25-km area around any of the nuclear power stations. However, around other nuclear installations the analysis reported an excess of leukaemia and NHL [non-Hodgkin lymphoma] in children near Burghfield, Dounreay and Sellafield; the results were consistent with previously published studies. Aldermaston, Burghfield and Harwell showed a significantly raised incidence of solid tumours in their vicinity. In contrast to a study using similar methods conducted by Sharp et al (1996), a statistically significant increase was seen for the Rosyth Naval Base. However, the finding is thought to be artefactual (COMARE, 2005). COMARE is encouraging the research workers concerned to undertake a detailed comparison of the data and methodologies used – see Recommendation 2 of the Tenth Report.

Scientists’ Statement to US EPA principle 1896-2000

Docket EPA-HQ-OPP-2008-0836

The following statement has been submitted by 26 leading corn insect scientists working at public research institutions located in 16 corn producing states. All of the scientists have been active participants of the Regional Research Projects NCCC-46 "Development, Optimization, and Delivery of Management Strategies for Corn Rootworms and Other Below-ground

Insect Pests of Maize" and/or related projects with corn insect pests.

The statement may be applicable to all EPA decisions on PIPs, not just for the current SAP. It should not be interpreted that the actions and opinions of these 26 scientists represent those of the entire group of scientists participating in NCCC-46. The names of the scientists have been withheld from the public

docket because virtually all of us require cooperation from industry at some level to conduct our research.

PIP: Plant Incorporated Protectant SAP: Scientific Advisory Panel

STATEMENT: principle 1896-2000

"Technology/stewardship agreements required for the purchase of genetically modified seed explicitly prohibit research. These agreements inhibit public scientists from pursuing their mandated role on behalf of the public good unless the research is approved by industry. As a result of restricted access, no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology, its performance, its management implications, IRM, and its interactions with insect biology. Consequently, data flowing to an EPA Scientific Advisory Panel from the public sector is unduly limited."

IRM: Integrated Resource Management

Late lessons from early warnings – the precautionary principle 1896-2000 (ed P Harramoës et al)

European Environment Agency ISBN 92-9167-323-4


Fisheries, radiation, benzene, asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), halocarbons, diethylstilboestrol (DES), antimicrobials as growth promoters, sulphur dioxide, chemical contamination in the Great Lakes, tributyltin (TCB) antifoulants, hormones as growth promoters, BSE