A new product can be (1) assumed safe until proven otherwise, or (2) assumed unsafe, until proven safe. A strong version of the Precautionary Principle assumes #2, placing the onus on the producer, rather than the consumer, to prove safety of a product. A strong version of this principle encourages due diligence and research on safety to prevent harm and ensuing liability. States must demand the right to enforce this common sense and ethical principle.
Sadly, many food additives, genetically engineered organisms, and other substances have never been subjected to toxicological testing, nor to testing that reflects actual use, such as when combining the "active ingredient" of a pesticide with other chemicals in a formulation. Corporations that are able to invent and put these products on the market ought to pay as well to more thoroughly address questions of safety.
Our legal system currently places the onus on the consumer to prove harm, which can be difficult if the consumer is sick or lacks the funds for independent scientific investigation into potential risks. However ridiculous, consumers must provide causative and scientific proof of evidence such as to fracking chemicals or pesticides. In other words, consumers must be sick, prove it, prove product causation, and go through the courts before products are removed from shelves. This can be prohibitively expensive.
While one would hope that the FDA, EPA, and other federal agencies would insure product safety, the influence of wealthy business interests has considerably weakened our protections. The Government Accountability Office, Union of Concerned Scientists, Transparency International, the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards and other organizations or agencies have published examples. The Center of Public Integrity's report on the nuclear power radiation leaks is an example not just of weak regulation and laws, but also of the risk of human error. Despite public monies, remediation is notoriously difficult for nuclear and many other pollutants.
The Precautionary Principle is meant to prevent harm even when all the risks are not known or certain. Depending on how the Precautionary Principle is written into law, the principle can be strong or weak, and apply to various fields: air pollution, water, food, human health, socioeconomic factors, et cetera. In addition to a precautionary stance, such a law can include aspects such as:
1. Transparency regarding risk assessments
2. Consideration for long- and short-term costs
3. Preference for alternatives with known safety
4. Public Right to Know of scientific research on human and environmental impacts
5. Consideration of social or cultural impacts
7. Not undertaking activities where scientific uncertainty exists (ex. drilling water wells in a polluted area)
8. Surveillance of public health following new public health measures
A strong formulation of the Precautionary Principle requires action, rather than just makes action a possibility. Harris and Holm provide the following wording for a very strong statement: "When an activity raises threats of serious or irreversible harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures which effectively prevent the possibility of harm (e.g., moratorium, prohibition, etc.) shall be taken even if the causal link between the activity and the possible harm has not been proven or the causal link is weak and the harm is unlikely to occur." [Emphasis added].
This principle currently allows the European Union to ban or limit the sale of GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. An Italian court did limit Italy's refusal of a GMO product on this principle by stating that a scientific risk assessment must occur. Presently in the European courts, GeneWatch UK and TestbioTech have cases based on the Precautionary Principle and the risk of GMOs to human health and the environment.
A criticism is whether the Precautionary Principle, written strongly, can ever allow innovation or new products, for in truth scientific investigation is time-consuming and sometimes difficult for policy makers to interpret. However, such a criticism seems unlikely when our current system appears laissez faire and old regulations against pollution are being disabled. At the same time, shouldn't we in every case avoid "serious or irreversible harm"? Requiring action insures that the executive branch cannot ignore risks, which often is a temptation where financial interests are concerned.
An misuse of the Precautionary Principle which should avoided would be forced medication, although no one else has ever seemed to suggest or consider this as an aspect. If the Precautionary Principle is used to justify forcing administration of medication, then the principle could be abused to force the use of medication for the benefit of financially-motivated parties. A number of pharmaceutical products on the market have been found to have unexpectedly detrimental effects post-use, such as addictive pharmaceuticals, and pharmaceutical marketing practices observed as corrupted. Because of the attitude and influence of pharmaceutical companies, and to respect self-determination, forcing medication under the guise of the Precautionary Principle would be a mistake.
However, aligning the Precautionary Principle with surveillance of the outcomes of environmental, industrial, or public health actions would be acceptable.
For further information, please see:
Donley, N (2016). Toxic concoctions: How the EPA ignores the dangers of pesticide cocktails. The Center for Biological Diversity. Wikimedia Commons. Available at https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/pesticides_reduction/pdfs/Toxic_concoctions.pdf
Finkel, M. L., & Law, A. (2011). The Rush to Drill for Natural Gas: A Public Health Cautionary Tale. American Journal of Public Health, 101(5), 784–785. http://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2010.300089
Harris, J. and Holm, S. 2002. Extending human lifespan and the precautionary paradox. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 27: 355–368.
Krimsky S (2017). The unsteady state and inertia of chemical regulation under the US Toxic Substances Control Act. PLoS Biol 15(12): e2002404. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2002404
Nicolopoulou-Stamati, P., Maipas, S., Kotampasi, C., Stamatis, P., & Hens, L. (2016). Chemical Pesticides and Human Health: The Urgent Need for a New Concept in Agriculture. Frontiers in Public Health, 4: 148. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2016.00148
Wallenberg, E. (2018 Summer). Barry Commoner: An Institution
A Science for the People Profile. Science for the People.