Earth Matters: Precautionary principle for a safer world

Earth Matters: Precautionary principle for a safer world

By Patti Wood

If you knew that an item you wanted for your home or your children had potentially serious health effects or caused harm to the environment, you would probably think twice before buying it.

Or if there was a possibility that you could be seriously harmed by engaging in a new activity, you may decide not to take the risk. It’s an old rule, known as “better safe than sorry,” and something every parent knows and teaches their child.

In the world of environmental health, this rule is known as the Precautionary Principle. Developed and formally established by an international group of scientists, lawyers, and policymakers at a conference in Racine, Wis., in 1998, the principle is stated as follows:

“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.”

The 32 authors hoped that decision makers would be guided by this principle when considering the production, use and release of toxic substances, the exploitation of natural resources, the changing climate, and worldwide contamination with nuclear materials. They believed that existing environmental regulations had failed to protect human health and the environment, leading to damage of such magnitude and seriousness that governments, corporations, individuals and communities should adopt a precautionary approach to all human endeavors.

In this context, the proponent of an activity, rather than the public (or an individual), should bear the burden of proof and act to prevent harm when there is clear evidence that harm is not only possible but likely.

Twenty-six years later, there is still much controversy surrounding this idea of how we regulate potentially harmful environmental exposures, and every country has a slightly different take on it. The European Union has probably done the most to incorporate the Precautionary Principle into its regulatory bodies and here in the United States we generally use a risk-benefit model, but that is also controversial at the highest levels.

So, how might the current state of regulation affect you? It might surprise you to know that many of the products that line the shelves of supermarkets, big-box stores, hardware stores and drugstores contain ingredients that government studies have shown to cause cancer, disrupt endocrine systems, impact normal neurological development or otherwise contribute to serious illness. But proving beyond a reasonable doubt that an individual’s exposure to a chemical was the single factor in developing disease is virtually impossible.

Formaldehyde is a good example. If you’re old enough, you might remember it from science class, when specimens were preserved in jars of formaldehyde. Formaldehyde-preserved animals are actually still purchased for and shipped to schools across the U.S. for dissection.

The companies that sell them recommend that students wear personal protective equipment such as gloves, chemical splash goggles, and aprons to protect themselves from formaldehyde exposure.

The National Science Teachers Association recommends proper ventilation in order to reduce exposure to potentially hazardous vapors released from formaldehyde during dissection. It also strongly advises against dissection of formaldehyde-preserved animals in middle schools as children at are greater risk from exposure. But it is not banned for use in schools.

Formaldehyde is a colorless chemical with a strong odor that is used primarily in building materials such as particleboard, plywood and other pressed-wood products. But it’s also used in your no-iron shirt, in paints and stains, glues, cosmetics, hair straighteners, dishwashing liquids and fabric softeners.

To determine the safety of chemicals and drugs, we use laboratory studies of rodents which are perfect models for studying impacts on human populations because they are so physiologically similar. There are no substances which have been shown to cause cancer in these animals that do not cause cancer in humans. Formaldehyde causes cancer in lab animals and has been designated a probable human carcinogen by the EPA.

And yet products with formaldehyde continue to be sold to unsuspecting consumers. In the black community, hair-straightening products are very popular, and almost all of them contain formaldehyde.

But just last week, the Food and Drug Administration announced it was delaying its announcement of a proposed ban on formaldehyde in these products, despite overwhelming evidence that it has caused hormonally driven cancers in women who used them.

This is why the Precautionary Principle should be engaged. This is where we need to insist that strong evidence of harm should be the trigger for federal regulatory action, not absolute proof.

It’s not the job of cancer survivors to prove that the product they used was hazardous. It’s the job of the product manufacturer to prove that the products they put on store shelves are safe.

As Benjamin Franklin once wisely observed, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

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