Interrogative Imperative Institute

Article - The Precautionary Principle


With the kind permission of Peter Montague, the editor of the Rachel E-Zine on environmental issues, articles from the archives of Rachel are being re-printed through this web site. These articles offer a very good overview of many facets of environmental research, issues, problems, questions, and challenges, but for a far more comprehensive, in-depth introduction to ecology please go to the Environmental Research Foundation web page directly.

The Precautionary Principle


[During 2001, the "precautionary principle" to guide environmental decision-making became widely-recognized as an important alternative to business as usual: The NEW YORK TIMES wrote positively about precautionary action,[1] the environmental community (worldwide) embraced the principle enthusiastically, and corporations -- which had begun to attack the principle crudely in 2000[2] -- launched a more sophisticated attack in 2001.[3]

In late 2001, 77 scientists and teachers from 16 countries issued the Lowell Statement on Science and Precaution.[4] The meeting that produced this statement now has its own web site: Here is the text of the Lowell Statement:]

Lowell Statement on Science and the Precautionary Principle, December 17, 2001; Statement from the International Summit on Science and the Precautionary Principle; Hosted by the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, University of Massachusetts Lowell 20-22 September 2001.

Growing awareness of the potentially vast scale of human impacts on planetary health has led to a recognition of the need to change the ways in which environmental protection decisions are made, and the ways that scientific knowledge informs those decisions. As scientists and other professionals committed to improving global health, we therefore call for the recognition of the precautionary principle as a key component of environmental and health policy decision-making, particularly when complex and uncertain threats must be addressed.

We reaffirm the 1998 Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle [see REHN #586] and believe that effective implementation of this principle requires the following elements:

** Upholding the basic right of each individual (and future generations) to a healthy, life-sustaining environment as called for in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights;

** Action on early warnings, when there is credible evidence that harm is occurring or likely to occur, even if the exact nature and magnitude of the harm are not fully understood;

** Identification, evaluation and implementation of the safest feasible approaches to meeting social needs;

** Placing responsibility on originators of potentially dangerous activities to thoroughly study and minimize risks, and to evaluate and choose the safest alternatives to meet a particular need, with independent review; and

** Application of transparent and inclusive decision-making processes that increase the participation of all stakeholders and communities, particularly those potentially affected by a policy choice.

We believe that effective application of the precautionary principle requires interdisciplinary scientific research, as well as explicitness about the uncertainties involved in this research and its findings.

Precautionary decision-making is consistent with "sound science" because of the large areas of uncertainty and even ignorance that persist in our understanding of complex biological systems, in the interconnectedness of organisms, and in the potential for interactive and cumulative impacts of multiple hazards. Because of these uncertainties, science will sometimes be incapable of providing clear and certain answers to important questions about potential environmental hazards. In these instances, policy decisions must be made on the basis of sound judgment, open discussion, and other public values, in addition to whatever scientific information is available. We believe that waiting for incontrovertible scientific evidence of harm before preventive action is taken can increase the risk of costly mistakes that can cause serious and irreversible harm not only to ecosystem and human health and well-being, but also to the economy.

Some of the ways that scientific information is currently applied in formulating policy can work against the ability to take precautionary action, for example by misrepresenting limitations in the state of scientific knowledge. Decision-makers frequently look for high levels of proof of causal links between a technology and a risk before acting, so that their decisions will be protected from accusations of being arbitrary. But often, high levels of proof cannot be achieved, and are not likely to be forthcoming in the foreseeable future. A more complete and open presentation from scientists on the current limitations in understanding of environmental risks will encourage the acceptance on the part of government decision-makers and the public of the idea that precautionary action is a prudent and effective strategy when potential risks are large and uncertainties are large as well.

It is not only the communication between scientists and policy makers, however, which needs improvement. We believe that there are ways in which the current methods of scientific inquiry may also retard precautionary action. For example, research frequently focuses on narrow, quantifiable aspects of problems, thus inadvertently excluding from consideration potential interactions among different components of the complex biologic systems of which humans are a part. The compartmentalization of scientific knowledge further impedes the ability of science to detect and investigate early warnings and develop options for preventing harm when far-reaching health and environmental risks are involved. Unfortunately, limitations in scientific tools and in the ability to quantify causal relationships are often misinterpreted by government decision-makers, scientists, and proponents of hazardous activities as evidence of safety. However, not knowing whether an action is harmful is not the same thing as knowing that it is safe.

We contend that effective implementation of the precautionary principle demands improved scientific methods, and a new interface between science and policy that stresses the continuous updating of knowledge as well as improved communication of risk, certainty, and uncertainty. With these objectives in mind, we call for a re-evaluation of scientific research agendas, funding priorities, science education, and science policy. The ultimate goals of this effort would include:

** A more effective linkage between research on hazards and expanded research on primary prevention, safer technological options, and restoration;

** Increased use of interdisciplinary approaches to science and policy, including better integration of qualitative and quantitative data;

** Innovative research methods for analyzing the cumulative and interactive effects of various hazards to which ecosystems and people are exposed; for examining impacts on populations and systems; and for analyzing the impacts of hazards on vulnerable sub-populations and disproportionately affected communities;

** Systems for continuous monitoring and surveillance to avoid unintended consequences of actions, and to identify early warnings of risks; and

** More comprehensive techniques for analyzing and communicating potential hazards and uncertainties (what is known, not known, and can be known).

We understand that human activities cannot be risk-free. However, we contend that society has not realized the full potential of science and policy to prevent damage to ecosystems and health while ensuring progress towards a healthier and economically sustainable future. The goal of precaution is to prevent harm, not to prevent progress. We believe that applying precautionary policies can foster innovation in better materials, safer products, and alternative production processes.

We urge governments to adopt the precautionary principle in environmental and health decision-making under uncertainty when there are potential risks, as well as to take timely preventive and restorative actions in cases where damage has been demonstrated. The elements of decision-making processes incorporating the precautionary principle, as outlined above, represent necessary aspects of sound, rational processes for preventing negative impacts of human activities on human and ecosystem health. This approach shares the core values and preventive traditions of medicine and public health.

--Peter Montague

(National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)

[1]Michael Pollan, "Precautionary Principle," NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE Dec. 9, 2001, pgs. 92, 94. ( Return to article)

[2] Wirthlin Worldwide, "The Precautionary Principle: Throwing Science Out with the Bath Water," WORTHLIN WORLDWIDE ISSUES PERSPECTIVE February, 2000. pgs. 1-8; available at ( Return to article)

[3] Indur M. Goklany, THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE; A CRITICAL APPRAISAL OF ENVIRONMENTAL RISK ASSESSMENT (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 2001). ISBN 1-930865-16-3. ( Return to article)

[4] Juan Almendares Bonilla, MD, MS, Professor of the Medical School of Honduras, Honduras; Molly Anderson, PhD, MS, Director of the Tufts University GIS Center, Tufts University, USA; Nicholas Ashford, PhD, JD, Professor of Technology & Policy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA; Katherine Barrett, PhD, Research Associate of Environmental Law and Policy, University of Victoria, Canada; Kamaljit Bawa, PhD, MS, Distinguished Professor of Biology, University of Massachusetts Boston, USA; Pushpa Bhargava, PhD, Founding Director, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, India; Finn Bro-Rasmussen, PhD, MSc, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science and Ecology, Danmarks Tekniske Universitet, Denmark; David Brown, ScD, Public Health Toxicologist, Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, USA; Donald Brown, JD, MA, Director; Pennsylvania Consortium for Interdisciplinary Environmental Policy, USA; Phil Brown, PhD, Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies, Brown University, USA; Richard Clapp, DSc, Associate Professor of Public Health, Boston University School of Public Health, USA; Terry Collins, PhD, Professor of Chemistry, Carnegie Mellon University, USA; Barry Commoner, PhD, Director of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, Queens College, USA; Anthony Cortese, ScD, President, Second Nature, USA; Carl Cranor, PhD, MSL, Professor of Philosophy, University of California Riverside, USA; Cathy Crumbley, MS, Program Director, Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA; Dianne Dumanoski, MA, Author, USA; Paul Epstein, MD, MPH, Associate Director, Center for Health and the Global Environment, Harvard Medical School, USA; Thomas Estabrook, PhD, Worker Health Educator, University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA; Daniel Faber, PhD, Associate Professor of Sociology, Director of the Philanthropy and Environmental Justice Research Project, Northeastern University, USA; Marian Flum, MS, Project Director of the Environmental Justice Minority Worker Training Program, University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA; Ken Geiser, PhD, Director of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute, University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA; Michael Gilbertson, PhD, Biologist, Canada; Elizabeth Guillette, PhD, Visiting Scholar, Tulane and Xavier Universities, USA; Marissa de Guzman, Research Assistant, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Philippines; Mary-Elizabeth Harmon, PhD, Toxics Campaign Scientist, Greenpeace, USA; May Hermanus, MSc, Chief Inspector of Mines, Department of Minerals and Energy, Mines Health and Safety Inspectorate, South Africa; Christina Holcroft, ScD, Post-doctoral Research Fellow, University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA; Polly Hoppin, ScD, Public Health Scientist, USA; James Huff, PhD, Toxicologist, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, USA; Carel Ijsselmuiden, MD, Director of the School of Health Systems and Public Health, University of Pretoria; South Africa; Sheila Jasanoff, PhD, JD, Professor of Science and Public Policy, Harvard University, USA; Matthias Kaiser, DPhil, Director, National Committee for Research Ethics in Science and Technology, Norway; Tom Kelly, PhD, Director of the Office of Sustainability Programs, University of New Hampshire, USA; Lee Ketelsen, New England Director, Clean Water Fund, USA; Misa Kishi, MD, DrPH, Senior Environmental Specialist, JSI Research and Training Institute, USA; David Kriebel, ScD, Co-Director of the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA; John Lemons, PhD, MS, Professor of Biology and Environmental Science, University of New England, USA; Richard Levins, PhD, Professor of Population Sciences, Harvard School of Public Health, USA; Edward Loechler, PhD, Professor of Biology, Director of the Program in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Boston University, USA; John MacDougall, PhD, Professor of Regional Economic and Social Development, University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA; Marco Martuzzi, PhD, Epidemiologist, WHO European Centre for Environment and Health, Italy; William Mass, PhD, MPH, Co-Director of the Center for Industrial Competitiveness, University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA; Arlene McCormack, PhD, Professor of Regional Economic and Social Projects Director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, USA; David Ozonoff, MD, MPH, Professor Environmental Health, Boston University, USA; Romeo Quijano, MD, MS, Associate Professor at the College of Medicine, University of Philippines Manila, Philippines; Margaret Quinn, ScD, Professor of Work Environment, University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA; Carolyn Raffensperger, JD, MA, Executive Director, Science and Environmental Health Network, USA; Jorge Riechmann, PhD, Research Coordinator, Instituto Sindical de Trabajo, Ambiente y Salud, Spain; Anthony Robbins, MD, Professor, Department of Family and Community Health, Tufts University School of Medicine, USA; Per Rosander, Chemical Policy Advisor, Kemi & Miljo AB, Sweden; Ruthann Rudel, MS, Senior Environmental Toxicologist, Silent Spring Institute, USA; Hans Sanderson, Aquatic Ecotoxicologist, Roskilde University, Denmark; Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, Science Director for the Science and Environmental Health Network, USA; Reinmar Seidler, Biologist, University of Massachusetts, Boston, USA; Vandana Shiva, PhD, Director and Founder, Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology, India; Caroly Shumway, PhD, Principal Investigator for Aquatic Biodiversity, New England Aquarium, USA; Carlos Eduardo Siqueira, MD, ScD, MPH, Research Assistant Professor of Work Environment, University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA; Craig Slatin, ScD, MPH, Assistant Professor, University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA; Carlos Sonnenschein, MD, Professor of Cellular Biology, Tufts University School of Medicine, USA; Colin Soskolne, PhD, Professor of Epidemiology, University of Alberta, Canada; Ana Soto, MD, Professor of Cell Biology, Tufts University, USA; Doreen Stabinsky, PhD, Science Advisor, Genetic Engineering Campaign, Greenpeace; USA; Andy Stirling, Dphil, MA, Senior Lecturer and Senior Fellow, Science Policy Research Unit; Sussex University, UK; Cato ten Hallers-Tjabbes, PhD, Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, Netherlands; Boyce Thorne-Miller, MSc, Consultant, USA; Joe Thornton, PhD, Research Scientist, Columbia University, USA; Joel Tickner, ScD, Research Assistant Professor of Work Environment, University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA; Alejandro Valeiro, PhD, Agronomic Engineer, National Institute for Agricultural Technology, Argentina; Miguel Vales, PhD, Senior Researcher, Institute of Ecology and Systematics, Cuba; Reginald Victor, PhD, Director of the Centre for Environmental Studies and Research, Sultan Qaboos University, Sultanate of Oman; Wendy Wagner, JD, MA, Professor, University of Texas School of Law, USA; Cathy Walker, National Health and Safety Director, Canadian Auto Workers, Canada; Tom Webster, DSc, Assistant Professor of Environmental Health, Boston University School of Public Health, USA; David Wegman, MD, MSc, Professor of Work Environment, University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA; John Wooding, PhD, Professor of Regional Economic and Social Development, University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA. ( Return to article)

Environmental Research Foundation

P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403

Fax (410) 263-8944; Internet:

Back issues available by E-mail; to get instructions, send E-mail to with the single word HELP in the message; back issues also available via ftp from and from .

and from

Subscriptions are free. To subscribe, E-mail the words



Environmental Research Foundation provides this electronic version of RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & amp; HEALTH WEEKLY free of charge even though it costs our organization considerable time and money to produce it. We would like to continue to provide this service free. You could help by making a tax-deductible contribution (anything you can afford, whether $5.00 or $500.00). Please send your tax-deductible contribution to: Environmental Research Foundation, P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403-7036. Please do not send credit card information via E-mail. For further information about making tax-deductible contributions to E.R.F. by credit card please phone us toll free at 1-888-2RACHEL, or at (410) 263-1584, or fax us at (410) 263-8944.

--Peter Montague, Editor

Copyrighted 2003-2017, Interrogative Imperative Institute, Brewer, Maine, 04402