Wingspread statement on the Precautionary Priniciple: tenth anniversary

This week sees the tenth anniversary of an important event in the American environmental movement, although few people know it (even some who were there had forgotten the date). In late January, 1998, a group of 32 environmental scientists, activists and scholars sat down together at the Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wisconsin to hash out a consensus statement on The Precautionary Principle. After a grueling three days, the statement was put into final form on January 25 (just in time to see my beloved Green Bay Packers lose the Superbowl. Is history repeating itself? Aargh!).

In the ten years since Wingspread, the Precautionary Principle has itself spread its wings. It has developed into a nuanced and flexible paradigm that has affected the thinking of both the public and the scientific community. Tip of the hat to the Wingspread Conferees.

The statement was released publicly on January 26, 1998, with this preamble:

Last weekend at an historic gathering at Wingspread, headquarters of the Johnson Foundation, scientists, philosophers, lawyers and environmental activists, reached agreement on the necessity of the Precautionary Principle in public health and environmental decision-making. The key element of the principle is that it incites us to take anticipatory action in the absence of scientific certainty. At the conclusion of the three-day conference, the diverse group issued a statement calling for government, corporations, communities and scientists to implement the "precautionary principle" in making decisions. The 32 conference participants included treaty negotiators, activists, scholars and scientists from the United States, Canada and Europe. The conference was called to define and discuss implementing the precautionary principle, which has been used as the basis for a growing number of international agreements. The idea of precaution underpins some U.S. policy, such as the requirement for environmental impact statements before major projects are launched using federal funds. But most existing laws and regulations focus on cleaning up and controlling damage rather than preventing it. The group concluded that these policies do not sufficiently protect people and the natural world. Participants noted that current policies such as risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis give the benefit of the doubt to new products and technologies, which may later prove harmful. And when damage occurs, victims and their advocates have the difficult task of proving that a product or activity was responsible. The precautionary principle shifts the burden of proof, insisting that those responsible for an activity must vouch for its harmlessness and be held responsible if damage occurs. The issues of scientific uncertainty, economics, environmental and public health protection which are embedded in the principle make this extremely complex. We invite your thought and conversation on these topics.

The Wingspread Consensus Statement on the Precautionary Principle

The release and use of toxic substances, the exploitation of resources, and physical alterations of the environment have had substantial unintended consequences affecting human health and the environment. Some of these concerns are high rates of learning deficiencies, asthma, cancer, birth defects and species extinctions; along with global climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion and worldwide contamination with toxic substances and nuclear materials. We believe existing environmental regulations and other decisions, particularly those based on risk assessment, have failed to protect adequately human health and the environment - the larger system of which humans are but a part. We believe there is compelling evidence that damage to humans and the worldwide environment is of such magnitude and seriousness that new principles for conducting human activities are necessary. While we realize that human activities may involve hazards, people must proceed more carefully than has been the case in recent history. Corporations, government entities, organizations, communities, scientists and other individuals must adopt a precautionary approach to all human endeavors. Therefore, it is necessary to implement the Precautionary Principle: 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 process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action. Conference Partners The Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle was convened by the Science and Environmental Health Network, an organization that links science with the public interest, and by the Johnson Foundation, the W. Alton Jones Foundation, the C.S. Fund and the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

Wingspread Conferees:

Dr. Nicholas Ashford

Katherine Barrett
Univ. of British Columbia

Anita Bernstein
Chicago-Kent College of Law

Dr. Robert Costanza
Univ. of Maryland

Pat Costner

Dr. Carl Cranor
Univ. of California, Riverside

Dr. Peter deFur
Virginia Commonwealth Univ.

Gordon Durnil

Dr. Kenneth Geiser
Toxics Use Reduction Inst., Univ. of Mass., Lowell

Dr. Andrew Jordan
Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment, Univ. Of
East Anglia

Andrew King
United Steelworkers of America, Canadian Office

Dr. Frederick Kirschenmann

Stephen Lester
Center for Health, Environment and Justice

Sue Maret
Union Inst.

Dr. Michael M'Gonigle
Univ. of Victoria, British Columbia

Dr. Peter Montague
Environmental Research Foundation

Dr. John Peterson Myers
W. Alton Jones Foundation

Dr. Mary O'Brien
Environmental Consultant

Dr. David Ozonoff
Boston University

Carolyn Raffensperger
Science and Environmental Health Network

Dr. Philip Regal
Univ. of Minnesota

Hon. Pamela Resor
Massachusetts House of Representatives

Florence Robinson
Louisiana Environmental Network

Dr. Ted Schettler
Physicians for Social Responsibility

Ted Smith
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition

Dr. Klaus-Richard Sperling
Alfred-Wegener- Institut, Hamburg

Dr. Sandra Steingraber

Diane Takvorian
Environmental Health Coalition

Joel Tickner
Univ. of Mass., Lowell

Dr. Konrad von Moltke
Dartmouth College

Dr. Bo Wahlstrom
KEMI (National Chemical Inspectorate), Sweden

Jackie Warledo
Indigenous Environmental Network

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In practice, this would appear to mean always favoring the status quo ante. Is it really the case, that on a global basis one is better off doing this?

To take an example, assume that I am a chemical company that has developed a new chemical. Under the precautionary principle, I have the burden to prove that it is safe. (It would seem difficult, to do this, though I suppose one could agree on limits of what needs to be shown.) If I don't show the new chemical is safe, I can't use it. This however, says nothing about the safety or effects of the alternative.

Perhaps my new chemical is safer than the alternative. Perhaps it isn't. Obviously, the burden of proof needs to lie on one side or the other. Is there evidence that on balance, presuming that new developments/activities are worse than their predecessors from a health/environmental perspective is safer than the opposite presumption?

askwhy: Unfortunately the evidence is all around us. Lead, asbestos, PCBs, flameretardants, phthalates, etc., etc. They now cannot be gotten out of the environment, or not easily. For most of them there was evidence they should not be used. See the European Environment Agency's compilation, Late Lessons from Early Warning: the precautionary principle 1896-2000 ( Depressing reading.

People will never agree to environmental controls that are perceived to be expensive or inconvenient.

Consider the rhetoric surrounding America's energy use - most of the political emphasis is on finding alternative sources that we can then use just as we do now, instead of working on reducing our consumption.

I predict that no governmental agency will ever take a proactive stance to preventing any kind of environmental damage.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 23 Jan 2008 #permalink

thanks revere, for bringing to mind this historic achievement.

This is particularly sobering when read in conjunction with the recent Global Risk 2008 report and in the context of the latest global financial meltdown.

The 4 major global issues highlighted are:

  • systemic financial risk
  • food security
  • supply chain vulnerability
  • Energy issues

Caledonian: You would be wrong. The PP touches a core value in the US ("look before you leap", "a stitch in time", "better safe than sorry") and has been part of various regs, some of them antedating the PP (e.g., the Delaney Clause of the pure food and drug regs; now, in Europe the REACH legislation and the new pesticide rules, uncertainty factors in environmental standards, etc.).

The problem with the PP is that you can never prove a negative. You can never prove a new technology won't cause harm until it is actually implemented.

Lets look at an easy example, drug side effects. Is it possible to find one-in-a-million drug side effects in a clinical trial of 10,000 patients?

Is it possible to "prove" that the one-in-a-million side effect won't be something like the mutated virus in "I am Legend" that then becomes self-sustaining?

One can never "prove" that something completely unexpected and completely outside our experience will never happen when something new is tried. The PP then says to never try anything new.

daedulus2u: This isn't a question of "proof." It is a question of thoughtful use of foresight. The examples in the EEA book were all ones that could easily have been (and in many cases were) foreseen. Right now there is an unrealistic expectation of proof of harm, not proof of safety. Forget about proving either one (since this is impossible). Concentrate on using reasonable and plausible assessments of harm before going ahead and letting the stuff loose on the world in a way it can't be recalled. The current prime example in my mind is nanotech materials.

revere: I think the point here is that the PP is very much pseudo-science. It is impossible to prove that a substance will never cause harm. Under the PP, even a drug like Aspirin would never have made it to market. PP also raises the bar on cost so high as to discourage innovation by small, often resource poor companies. Also, I don't mean this as a snark, but if we applied the PP to the application of PP to other areas of human activity; we could never prove that the PP will never cause unintended harm itself.

palit: This is clearly not true. First, the PP is not science, it is policy. Second, current FDA rules are essentially PP rules. A manufacturer must show both safety and efficacy. Your third point is logically valid but unfortunately leads to an infinite regress, so it is not an objection that can be granted without invalidating too much else (every evaluation that has ever been done, for example).

The problem with the PP as policy is that it is easy to hijack and apply selectively as a mechanism for thwarting change. Thus Bush can invoke the PP in saying we need to be very careful about not damaging the economy in a rush to do something about global warming. We need to be able to torture suspects because what if that is the only way to prevent a future terrorist act that might kill millions. We need to invade Iraq because what if Saddam has WMD. We cant outlaw guns because then only outlaws will have guns.

The PP is simply a way of shifting the burden of proof to the person not invoking the PP.

Regarding GM plants, for many that are being held up there is no plausible mechanism by which they might conceivably cause any harm. For example GM maize in Europe. There are no wild relatives of maize in Europe which might be "contaminated" by GM pollon.

Hey, I've got that European report that REvere mentions!

To give people an idea, the report covers:
Fisheries, radiation, Benzene, Asbestos, halocarbons, tributyl tin, mad cow disease, and a number of other chemicals and suchlike. In each example a case can be made that by applying the precautionary principle the wider effects would have been reduced and many lives and much money would have been saved.

The Asbestos example is probably easiest to understand. The dangers of asbestos were reported back in 1898, but thanks to the lax standards of the time, the reports were ignored. It was a case of allowing companies to use materials that they had no idea what effects there were, and then when ill effects were noticed, they were ignored. It took to the late 1920's before quite a number of deaths resulted in various reports and a government inquiry. Unfortunately, as we all know, it took until the 70's before decent controls were put into place and there is noq a dwindling band of mesothelioma sufferers who have recieved some measly sum of compensation.
Essentially, Asbestos was a reasonable example of something which people used without thinking about, then when problems were reported, they were ignored for years.