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The Precautionary Principle

Background - 2 July, 2004
Existing environmental regulations and other relevant policies have failed to adequately protect human health and the global environment.

Activists posting warning signs by a wastewater pipe in Vapi.

Corporations, government entities, organisations, communities, scientists and other individuals must act in accordance with the precautionary approach to all human endeavours.

The Precautionary Principle is not a new idea. It has been adopted by a number of international environmental treaties, conventions and political declarations. But what does it mean?

It means that when (on the basis of available evidence) an activity may harm human health or the environment, a cautious approach should be taken in advance - even if the full extent of harm has not yet been fully established scientifically. It recognises that such proof of harm may never be possible, at least until it is too late to avoid or reverse the damage done.

Take, for example, a company that wants to discharge a chemical into a river or the marine environment. Scientific knowledge may lead to concerns (based on intrinsic properties of that or similar chemicals) that the chemical could harm fish or other species or get into the food chain, even if studies that would establish the likelihood and extent of the damage are not available.

In this context, invoking the Precautionary Principle means that the company would not be permitted to discharge this chemical, particularly if the potential effects could be widespread or irreversible.

Invoking the Precautionary Principle means that rather than using the environment as a testing lab, preventive action must be taken at the source before the damage has started to occur.

Lessons from the past

This is in contrast to the past, where it has often been up to the victims of environmental damage to demonstrate that a chemical, another substance or an activity thought to be environmentally destructive was harmful -- long after the damage had started to occur.

The release of toxic substances, exploitation of resources and physical alterations of the environment without applying the Precautionary Principle have led to substantial unintended consequences affecting human health and the global environment.

The release of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) long after the first alarm bells started ringing in the 1970s, the build up of persistent and bioaccumulative chlorinated pesticides in the environment and in our food, or the continuously increasing emissions of climate change-inducing CO2 are cases in point.

Some of these consequences have been asthma, cancer, birth defects and species extinction as well as global climate change, stratosphere ozone depletion and worldwide contamination from toxic substances and nuclear materials.

Scientific uncertainty is not a reason to proceed with a potentially harmful activity until such time as the extent of harm become clearer. On the contrary, it should be a reason to be cautious because what we do not know is more than what we know.

The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed, and democratic. It must include all potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including, where necessary, the development of sustainable alternatives where they do not already exist.