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The Precautionary Principle

Green Futures supports all efforts to lessen and stop pollutants and improve quality of life.

Protecting public health and the environment
Information from Clean Water Action flyer - Oct.1999

For years, the environmental and public health movements have been struggling to find ways to protect health and the environment in the face of scientific uncertainty about cause and effect. The public has typically carried the burden of proving that a particular activity or substance was dangerous, while those undertaking potentially dangerous activities are considered innocent until proven guilty. Chemicals, dangerous practices and companies often seem to have more rights than citizens and the environment.

The burden of scientific proof has posed a monumental barrier in the campaign to protect health and the environment. Actions to prevent harm are usually taken only after significant proof of harm is established, at which point it may be too late. Hazards are generally addressed by industry and government agencies one at a time, in terms of a single pesticide or chemical, rather than as broader issues such as the need to promote organic agriculture and nontoxic products or to phase out whole classes of dangerous chemicals. When citizen groups base their calls for a stop to a particular activity on experience, observation or anything less than stringent scientific proof, they are accused of being emotional and hysterical.

To overcome this barrier, advocates need a decision-making and action tool with ethical power and scientific rigor. the "precautionary principle,"which has become a critical aspect of environmental agreements and environmental activism throughout the world, offers the public and decision-makers a forceful, common-sense approach to environmental and public health problems.

Precautionary principle shifts burden of proof

The precautionary principle has been defined as "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."It includes taking action in the face of uncertainty, shifting burdens of proof to those who create risks; analysis of alternatives to potentially harmful activities; and participatory decision-making methods.

European countries, most notably Sweden and Denmark, have begun to enact laws based on the Precautionary Principle. Recent international controversies regarding genetically modified foods, beef hormones, and phthalates softeners in PVC children's toys have raised the need for U.S. government agencies to better understand and develop a process for implementing the precautionary principle.

Focus on options and solutions

In essence, the precautionary principle provides a rationale for taking action against a practice or substance in the absence of scientific certainty rather than continuing the suspect practice while it is under study, or without study. Instead of asking what level of harm is acceptable, a precautionary approach asks: How much contamination can be avoided? What are the alternatives to this product or activity, and are they safer? Is this activity even necessary? The precautionary principle focuses on options and solutions rather than risk.

The Precautionary Principle Project

The Massachusetts Precautionary Principle Project (PPP) is a collaboration of scientists and activists working to implement the precautionary principle in health and environmental decision-making in Massachusetts. Participating partners include the Massachusetts Clean Water Fund, the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, and

the Science and Environmental Health Network. The partners are engaged in a multi-year program of education, policy analysis, constituent-building, recruitment and training. Participants in the project will examine current and potential problems throughout the state and propose solutions based on the Precautionary Principle. The PPP is the first project in the nation to employ this innovative approach, and it will be designed as a model for the rest of the country.

In 2002, the PPP has taken a new direction and has developed
the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow. Visit their site for more information.

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