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Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle The Science and Environmental Health Network is working to implement the precautionary principle as a basis for environmental and public health policy. The principle and the main components of its implementation are stated this way in the 1998 Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle:

"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. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. The process of applying the precautionary principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action." - Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, Jan. 1998

The precautionary principle, virtually unknown here six years ago, is now a U.S. phenomenon. In December 2001 the New York Times Magazine listed the principle as one of the most influential ideas of the year, describing the intellectual, ethical, and policy framework SEHN had developed around the principle.

In June 2003, the Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco became the first government body in the United States to make the precautionary principle the basis for all its environmental policy.

Read Frequently Asked Questions for a quick overview of the precautionary principle or this White Paper for full background.

Understanding the Role of Science in Regulation. The Wingspread Statement and the European Union in Environmental Health Perspectives Volume 117 Number 3 March 2009.

  Precautionary Principle - The Precaution Reporter

When the staff of the Science & Environmental Health Network learned that Rachel's Precaution Reporter (RPR) was slated for retirement, we knew we had to do something. RPR has been a keystone of SEHN's work on the precautionary principle, and we had a feeling that our colleagues relied on it as well.

In order to gauge reader interest, we asked RPR publisher Peter Montague if he would do a readership survey. We hoped to discover whether people were really reading and using RPR, and therefore whether we should devote our organization's resources to keep it going.

Were we surprised! Within hours of sending the survey, we were positively deluged with responses, lamenting the end of RPR, begging it to go on, relaying the specific ways activists and scholars have been using RPR in their work, and offering an outpouring of volunteer time, funding and support to keep it going. From every corner of the US as well as several other countries, devoted readers pledged their loyalty to RPR.

Well Dear Readers, we can't deny such passion! Due to popular demand from you, SEHN has decided to carry on RPR. Although noone can do it like Peter -- one of the true Godfathers of the environmental health and justice movements -- we will do our best to steer this little ship. At first SEHN will publish RPR monthly, and then depending on resources (has anyone else heard that phrase this year?) we will try to ramp up the frequency. (Unfortunately we can't pick up Rachel's Democracy and Health News too, only Rachel's Precaution Reporter.)

And meanwhile, SEHN and Rachel's have been deeply touched by your offerings of support for the work. Like all non-profits, SEHN is on pins and needles financially this year. To those of you who love RPR and offered to send $12 or $120 to support its continuation, we humbly and gratefully accept your partnership in this vital work.

Recent issues of the Precaution Reporter can be found here.

To donate online, click here.

"To subscribe to the Precaution Reporter, send a message to info [at] sehn [dot] org."

  Precautionary Principle - Publications

Precautionary Tools for Reshaping Environmental PolicyPrecautionary Tools for Reshaping Environmental Policy
Nancy Myers and Carolyn Raffensperger, editors.
MIT Press, 2006

The leading hands-on guide to how to use the precautionary principle in your own community. Edited by SEHN staff and featuring contributions from leading activists from around the country, this book helps you put the principle into practice.

See table of contents and sample chapters and purchase the book at the MIT Press website.

Precaution's Reach: A Principle in Action
The Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE)

Advancing The Precautionary Agenda
SEHN is pleased to release a new report, "Advancing The Precautionary Agenda," examining the role of the precautionary principle across sectors. The report draws a picture of shared ideas, challenges, and hopes for integrating precaution in a broad-based fashion.

New documents available by Science and Environmental Health Network and smartMeme Strategy & Training Project: "The Future of Foresight: Long Term Strategic Considerations for Promoting the Precautionary Principle" and "Mapping 2020: Charting a Precautionary Future - Exploring Scenarios for the Unfolding Precautionary Movement".

Canada’s Supreme Court supports pesticide ban
"More than 70 municipalities (including Vancouver, British Columbia; Montreal, Quebec; and Halifax, Nova Scotia) have already passed bylaws prohibiting the cosmetic use of pesticides, and many more cities are poised to pass bans now that the Supreme Court has cleared the way." Early bans cited the precautionary principle.

The Precautionary Principle
Multinational Monitor, Sept 2004, Vol 25, No 9
Includes articles by Nancy Myers, Peter Montague, Joe DiGangi, and an interview with Carolyn Raffensperger

The Precautionary Principle and Environmental Policy: Science, Uncertainty, and Sustainability
International Journal of Occupational Environmental Health, Vol. 6, No. 3, Oct/Dec 2000 Special Series Guest Editor: Carl Smith
Contributors: Andrea Ahrens, Clifton Curtis, Gwynne Lyons, Susan Mayer, Nancy Myers, Carolyn Raffensperger, Claudia Saladia, Elizabeth Salter, Ted Schettler, Carl Smith, Andy Stirling, Joe Thorton, Joel Tickner.

Protecting Public Health and the Environment: Implementing the Precautionary Principle, 1999.Protecting Public Health and the Environment: Implementing the Precautionary Principle, 1999
Carolyn Raffensperger, Joel Tickner, and Wes Jackson et al.
The most comprehensive exploration to date of the history, theory, and implementation of the precautionary principle, this book expands on papers presented at the seminal 1998 Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle.
Buy this book at Island Press.

The Precautionary Principle Handbook
A 1998 SEHN guide to applying the precautionary principle. Written by Joel Tickner, Carolyn Raffensperger, and Nancy Myers.
For updated information on applying the precautionary principle, see excerpts from Precautionary Tools for Reshaping Environmental Policy.
N.B. This link will download the Precautionary Principle Handbook in Rich Text Format (.rtf).

  Practical Training for Precautionary Action

The Science and Environmental Health Network and Environmental Research Foundation ( and have created The Precaution Academy to offer an intensive weekend of training to prepare participants to apply precautionary thinking to a wide range of issues in their communities and workplaces. The Academy is intended to serve the needs of citizen activists, government officials, public health specialists, small business owners, journalists, educators, and the engaged public.

For more information about upcoming training please see the Practical Training for Precautionary Action page on this website.

  Precautionary Principle - Frequently Asked Questions

10 FAQs regarding the Precautionary Principle.

  Precautionary Principle - Links to Networker Issues on Precaution

War and the Precautionary Principle (April 2003)
Attending to the Context of Our Innovations (Jan 2003)
Questions for Precautionary Thinking (June 2002)
Democracy and the Precautionary Principle (May 2001)
The Precautionary Principle (March 1998)
Precaution and Endocrine Disruption (May 1997)

  Precautionary Principle: Links to Rachel's Environment and Health News

Rachel's Environment & Health News is a publication of the Environmental Research Foundation, a clearing house of news and resources for environmental justice, which provides understandable scientific information about human health and the environment.

Fourteen Reasons for Precaution (May 2004)
Answering the Critics of Precaution, Part 1 (April 2004)
Answering the Critics of Precaution, Part 2 (April 2004)
Land Use and Precaution (March 2004)
Report from Europe: Precaution Ascending (March 2004)
Environmental Justice and Precaution (May 2003)
San Francisco Adopts the Precautionary Principle (March 2003)

  Precautionary Principle - Essays

San Francisco Precautionary Principle Ordinance, 3 year report
November 29, 2006
This report was adopted by the Commission on the Environment for submission to the Board of Supervisors on November 28, 2006.

San Francisco Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Ordinance

Precaution and Innovation
By Carolyn Raffensperger
A PowerPoint presentation to legislators and staff of the New York State Assembly.

Good Science vs. the Common Good
January 19, 2004
By Janet Jacobson
Op-ed in Cavalier County Republican

New Approaches To Safeguarding The Earth
August 4, 2003
By Jared Blumenfeld, director, San Francisco Department of the Environment.
An environmental version of the Hippocratic oath.

San Francisco Passes New Environmental Ordinance
July 31, 2003
San Francisco is the first city in the nation to adopt the Precautionary Principle.

Contempt For Small Places
June 2003
By Wendell Berry, the author of "The Unsettling of America"

Poet, novelist, and essayist, Wendell Berry farms in Kentucky and is a member of the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kansas.

The Precautionary Principle and the City and County of San Francisco.
March 2003
A white paper. Reprinted with permission from the City of San Francisco, Dept. of the Environment.

A Response To Issues And Values Related To Genetically Modified Organisms
March 2003
A Statement from the Rural Life Committee of the North Dakota Conference of Churches.

The Precautionary Principle Puts Values First
June 2002
By Nancy Myers, Science and Environmental Health Network.
Reprinted with Permission from the Bulletin of Science, Technology, & Society, Vol. 22, No. 3, June 2002, 210-219. Copyright 2002 Sage Publications.

Wolves and Precaution: The Precautionary Principle and Children's Environmental Health
May 8, 2002
By Carolyn Raffensperger, Science and Environmental Health Network.
Keynote address to the Washington State Environmental Health Association's 57th Annual Educational Conference, Olympia, WA
N.B. The link initiates an MS Word 2000 download.

A Canadian Perspective on the Precautionary Approach/Principle
March 28, 2002
By Stuart Lee and Katherine Barrett.
Comments in response to the Canadian goverment's Discussion Document on the Precautionary Principle/Approach.

The Importance of the Precautionary Principle
December 9, 2001
By Michael Pollan
"For the last several decades, American society has been guided by the ''risk analysis'' model, which assesses new technologies by trying to calculate the mathematical likelihood that they will harm the public. There are other ways, however, to think about this problem. Indeed, a rival idea from Europe, the ''precautionary principle,'' has just begun making inroads in America." -

Technology: Who Chooses? A Precaution Primer
Fall 2001
An article reprinted from Yes Magazine by Nancy Myers and Carolyn
Download the article in Rich Text Format.

The Precautionary Principle: Revisioning Iowa's Environmental Health
September 7, 2001
A talk given by Carolyn Raffensperger to The Iowa Environmental Council.
Download the talk in Rich Text Format.

In Defense of the Precautionary Principle
September 2001
Correspondence to Nature Biotechnology from Carolyn Raffensperger and Katherine Barrett - September 2001 Vol. 19, No. 9, pages 811-812.
Download the correspondence in Rich Text Format.

Challenging the Status Quo in Ethnobotany: A New Paradigm for Publication May Protect Cultural Knowledge and Traditional Resources
By Kelly Bannister and Katherine Barrett

Reprinted with permission from Cultural Survival Quarterly

The U.S. and the Precautionary Principle: An NGO Response in the Context of the Cartagena Protocol
December 2000
By Nancy Myers
In this paper we outline four considerations that will help to focus implementation of the precautionary principle in the Cartagena Protocol. In the second part we offer responses to criticisms of the precautionary principle which are often presented by U.S. officials and others who support U.S. viewpoints. Such arguments have been raised in negotiations on the Protocol, as well as in recent international trade, environment, and food safety discussions. It is important to address these criticisms directly so they do not stand in the way of either a broad precautionary approach to protecting the environment and human health or specific precautionary actions taken to implement the Protocol. - excerpt
NB: Due to length of the paper, the link will download the paper in Rich Text Format.

The Precautionary Principle As Forecaring: Hopeful Work For The Environmental Health Movement
By Carolyn Raffensperger
October 2000
Taking Back Our Food, Farms and Playgrounds: A conference on the interlocking issues of pesticide reform, environmental health, genetic engineering and corporate control of agriculture. A lecture given at the Mount Alverno Conference, Center Redwood City, California October 6-8, 2000.

Risk Assessment and Risk Management
September 2000
The purpose of this brief is to inform and educate the layperson about risk assessment as it is currently practiced, and what it purports to achieve. Government agencies develop risk assessments to make most public policy decisions relating to public health and the environment. An understanding of its components and their bases will enable citizens to undertake critical analyses of risk assessment, and understand its current misuse, as well as the dangers of today's risk management policies. Commonly, risk assessments are used to justify hazardous practices. -

Debating the Precautionary Principle
By Nancy Myers
March 2000
"The precautionary principle has taken center stage in a number of recent international discussions on trade, the environment, and human health. As a result, it has stirred criticism as well as interest. In these discussions and in a growing number of media reports on the principle, certain criticisms and qualifications, enumerated below, have been repeated with some frequency." -

Status and Implementation of the Precautionary Principle
March, 2000
By Joel Tickner and Nancy Myers
"Discussion of the role of the precautionary principle in environmental health policy has intensified in recent months, especially in the European Union and in the international arena but also in the United States and Canada. Much of this debate has been fueled by trade controversies over beef and milk containing growth hormones and over genetically modified foods. The precautionary principle dominated discussions at the recent Biosafety Protocol meeting in Montreal and was at the core of the final protocol. At last fall's World Trade Organization Ministerial meeting in Seattle, controversy swirled around the precautionary principle. The principle has been a central element in recent discussions of international food safety standards (Codex Alimentarius)." -

Pollution is Personal
The Massachusetts Precautionary Principle Project:
Clean Water Fund, Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition and Science & Environmental Health Network
"Pollution is personal. Chemical pollutants are found in our breast milk and our sperm, our amniotic fluid and our fatty tissue, our blood, bone, and urine. There have been alarming increases in the incidence of certain diseases, and many of them have suspected links to environmental pollution. These diseases cannot be completely explained by other causes, and their increase mirrors the increase in toxic chemical production, use, and release. Illness is the result of a complex interaction of genetic, social and environmental factors, but we must not ignore the environmental connection. " -

Putting Precaution into Practice
The Massachusetts Precautionary Principle Project:
Clean Water Fund, Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition and Science & Environmental Health Network
"This briefing paper presents an overview of the Precautionary Principle and some components of a structure to implement the Principle in environmental health policy. The Precautionary Principle comes into play when there may be environmental or health damage and there is uncertainty as to whether the effect has or will occur and its potential magnitude. Precaution is about anticipating (the Precautionary Principle comes form the German Vorsorge, or foresight, principle) and preventing environmental health damage. It is about the best possible science for the best possible decisions that prevent harm to human health or the environment. The precautionary principle requires more, not less science than traditional decision-making methods. Decisions to invoke the precautionary principle involve different types of scientific knowledge from different fields. They require honesty about uncertainty, what is known, not known, and can be scientifically determined. " -

Racing Towards the Starting Line: The Radical Nature of Precaution
By Mary O'Brien

Presentation for "At the Heart of Primary Prevention: Breast Cancer and the Precautionary Principle." Sponsored by Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition. Boston, Massachusetts, 23 October 1999.

It is exciting to come here from Oregon to be with you, because Massachusetts is doing some amazing things that I want to take back home. Your coalition for a statewide Precautionary Principle Initiative is extraordinarily exciting, and far advanced of where we are in toxics policy in Oregon. You have a statewide clean production institute - I hope we get one in the state of Oregon sometime within the next decade. In fact, just this week, long-time Oregon environmental activists met for a three-day retreat, and decided to form a statewide toxics organization, because we have none. We have a premier statewide PESTICIDE organization, the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP). We have statewide organizations for protecting forests and rivers; for removing four major dams to save salmon which are going extinct; for getting cows off the national public grasslands and forests in Oregon ... but no statewide organization for toxics. - excerpt

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