The Rise of the Precautionary Principle: A Social Movement Gathers Strength

Article excerpt

ED SOPH IS A JAZZ MUSICIAN and professor at the University of North Texas in Denton, a growing town of about 100,000 just outside Dallas, Texas. In 1997, Ed and his wife Carol founded Citizens for Healthy Growth, a Denton group concerned about the environment and future of their town. The Sophs and their colleagues--the group now numbers about 400--are among the innovative pioneers who are implementing the Precautionary Principle in the United States.

The Sophs first came across the Precautionary Principle in 1998, in the early days of the group's campaign to prevent a local copper wire manufacturer, United Copper Industries, from obtaining an air permit that would have allowed lead emissions Ed remembers the discovery of the Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle--a 1998 environmental health declaration holding that "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"--as "truly a life-changing experience." Using the Precautionary Principle as a guide, the citizens refused to be drawn into debates on what levels of lead, a known toxicant, might constitute a danger to people's health. Instead, they pointed out that a safer process was available and insisted that the wise course was not to issue the permit. The citizens prevailed

The principle helped again iii 2001. when a citizen learned that the pesticides 2,4-D, simazine, Dicamba and MCPP were being sprayed in the city parks. "The question was, given the 'suspected' dangers of these chemicals, should the city' regard those suspicions as a reassurance of the chemicals' safety or as a warning of their potential dangers?" Ed recalls. "Should the city act out of ignorance or out of common sense and precaution?"

Soph learned that the Greater Los Angeles School District had written the Precautionary Principle into its policy on pesticide use and had turned to Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a system aimed at controlling pests without the use of toxic chemicals. The Denton group decided to advocate for a similar policy. They persuaded the city's park district to form a focus group of park users and organic gardening experts. The city stopped spraying the tour problem chemicals and initiated a pilot IPM program.

The campaign brought an unexpected economic bonus to the city. In the course of their research, parks department staff discovered that corn gluten was a good turf builder and natural broadleaf herbicide. But the nearest supplier of corn gluten was in the Midwest, and that meant high shipping costs for the city. Meanwhile, a corn processing facility in Denton was throwing away the corn gluten it produced as a byproduct. The parks department made the rink, and everyone was pleased. The local corn company was happy to add a new product line; the city was happy about the expanded local business and the lower price for a local product; and the environmental group chalked up another success.

The citizens of Denton, Texas, did not stop there. They began an effort to improve the community's air pollution standards. They got arsenic-treated wood products removed from school playgrounds and parks and replaced with nontoxic facilities. "The Precautionary Principle helped us define the problems and find the solutions," Ed says.

But, as he wrote in an editorial for the local paper, "The piecemeal approach is slow, costly and often more concerned with mitigation than prevention." Taking a cue from Precautionary Principle pioneers in San Francisco, they also began lobbying for a comprehensive new environmental code for the community, based on the Precautionary Principle.

In June 2003, San Francisco's board of supervisors had become the first government in the United States to embrace the Precautionary Principle. A new environmental code drafted by the city's environment commission put the Precautionary Principle at the top, as Article One. …