The precautionary principle – better safe than sorry?

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Documents prepared by EU bodies increasingly contain the term “precautionary principle”, especially documents concerned with evaluation of uncertainties or risks. The term was coined to cover situations where some precautionary measures are taken, even though there is no definitive proof or evidence of damage. One problem with this term is that different individuals interpret it in different ways; there is no clear consensus on its accurate definition. It tends to appear when environmental issues are under debate. In fact one of its earliest uses was on the treaty on preservation of fish stocks in the North Sea which dates from the 1980s.

The UN defined the precautionary principle in the 1992 Rio Agreement on Climate as ”a justification to protect the environment while the scientific evidence is not yet conclusive, but serious or irreversible damage could be expected”. The EU has stated how the precautionary principle is to be used; it is to be applied only after the scientific risk assessment has been conducted. Used in this way, the precautionary principle is not a novel concept. For example, a chemical that causes cancer in experimental animals is invariably classified as a “chemical with potentially carcinogenic properties to humans”, even though there is no scientific evidence that the agent actually causes cancer in humans.


Recently two problems have emerged related to the use of the precautionary principle. Certain activist organizations have tried to interpret the principle in an inverse manner – everything which has not been demonstrated as being safe, must be considered as being dangerous. This inverse argument has been used to oppose the introduction of new chemicals or novel techniques such as biotechnology. This deliberately obscures the fact that the UN convention stated that it is essential that there has to be some scientific evidence of harm (or, at the very least, a reasonable suspicion) and furthermore, that harm has to be either serious or irreversible, before the precautionary principle can be applied.

There is the desire to overlook the fact that total harmlessness, in other words the complete absence of any risks, is a logical impossibility. Applying the precautionary principle in that way would be arbitrary and unjust. Anything that a special interest group (even an individual) disliked for whatever reason could be banned, since it is impossible to demonstrate that anything is absolutely safe and totally risk free. This would move our society away from operating according to regulations founded on science-based risk management to a lottery of approved and banned substances.

The second problem is the belief that the precautionary principle can be applied already during the risk assessment process. This leads to the situation where the risk to be evaluated is assessed as being greater than it actually is, and this could even prevent the accumulation of correct data on the risk to society. In effect, we would be moving down a path encouraging accumulation of ignorance and subsequently, decisions would be based on beliefs and opinions, not on facts. Thus, the precautionary principle should be applied during, and only during, the risk management phase, not as a part of the risk assessment procedure. The use of the precautionary principle during risk management needs to be open and transparent; one needs to read in the documentation where, when and how it has been applied.

The injudicious use of the precautionary principle gives rise to the same problems encountered with “conservative risk assessment”. These concepts inevitably lead to maximising the uncertain risk; clear and well-documented risks are given less emphasis and theoretical and inadequately studied risks with large uncertainties are over-emphasized. It is unlikely that this is really in anyone’s best interest, in many cases it may be likened to burying one’s head in the sand.

The precautionary principle states that it is advisable to undertake certain actions even though the scientific evidence may be incomplete. However, caution needs to be exercised when this principle is applied, since it places a disproportionate emphasis on unquantified risks at the same time as it minimises the value placed on well-defined risks.

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