Precautionary Principle at odds with science

Published September 1, 2001

Ignoring the achievements of modern science and technology, European bureaucrats and American environmental activists have embraced a doctrine fundamentally at odds with common sense.

The doctrine is called the “precautionary principle.” At first glance, it would seem to suggest little more than “look before you leap” or “better safe than sorry.” Yet as cattlemen, biotechnology companies, and manufacturers of medical devices are finding out, the precautionary principle is a lethal weapon aimed at today’s most innovative products and promising scientific breakthroughs.

So what is this precautionary principle? The Science and Environmental Health Network, a North Dakota-based activist group, is one of many environmental organizations that define the precautionary principle as follows:

“When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

By separating the alleged “threats of harm” from “cause-and-effect relationships,” the precautionary principle opens the door to a world in which mere conjecture becomes the driving force behind health and safety regulations.

“The so-called ‘precautionary principle,'” notes Washington State University toxicologist Alan S. Felsot, “essentially holds that when any concerns or allegations, no matter how spurious, are raised about the safety of a product, precautionary measures should be put in place and all burden of proof to the contrary should fall on the proponent of the allegedly unsafe product or activity.”

Proving a negative

A regulatory framework geared toward proving that a new product or technology doesn’t do harm is dangerously close to requiring that a company or individual prove a negative–a logical impossibility. Nothing in life is risk-free; everything we do involves trade-offs. We have come to take electricity for granted, recognizing how it has made life more comfortable–and safer–than our distant ancestors could ever have imagined. But electricity is dangerous; people get electrocuted. Had the precautionary principle been in force when it came along, it’s doubtful electricity would ever have surmounted its regulatory hurdles.

In Europe, the precautionary principle is already being used to justify the European Commission’s decision to bar the import of North American beef from cattle fed with growth hormones. The EC contends the growth hormones might cause endocrine disruption, a claim dismissed by a scientific panel convened by the World Trade Organization.

Similarly, the EC has invoked the precautionary principle to impede the sale of genetically modified food. Unable to demonstrate any harm that crops developed from gene-spliced plants could do, the EC’s hostility to agricultural biotechnology could deny food to the world’s hungry.

A campaign against life-saving technology

While the precautionary principle does not yet guide regulatory decision in the United States, anti-progress environmental groups–including the Science and Environmental Health Network, Health Care Without Harm, and Greenpeace–are pushing for adoption of just such a scheme.

Trumpeting the precautionary principle, Health Care Without Harm has launched a nationwide campaign against medical devices such as blood bags, transfusion equipment, and intravenous tubing and bags. The group claims that phthalates, the chemicals used to make the bags and tubes softer, could leach into patients. Health Care Without Harm can’t document a single case of a patient’s being injured in this manner. In fact, the targeted devices have been used safely by hospitals for 40 years.

Not content with smearing perfectly safe products, these groups are now pushing for adoption of the precautionary principle at the state level, with efforts already underway in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New Jersey. But when speculation trumps science, the public can only lose.

Bonner R. Cohen is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.

For more information . . .

Research and commentary on the precautionary principle is available by fax through PolicyBot, The Heartland Institute’s free online research service. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for keywords precautionary principle.

Alternatively, search PolicyBot for these specific documents: #2313124 Precautionary Tale (April 1999, 5pp.); #0468402 The Precautionary Principle and the Proposed International Biosafety Protocol (Spring 2000, 18pp.); #2313445 Risk Assessment v. The Precautionary Principle (March 2000, 10pp.); and #0468403 Applying the Precautionary Principle to Genetically Modified Crops. (August 2000, 19pp.)