The Precautionary Principle: A Critical Appraisal of Environment Risk Assessment

The Precautionary Principle: A Critical Appraisal of Environment Risk Assessment

The Precautionary Principle: A Critical Appraisal of Environment Risk Assessment

The Precautionary Principle: A Critical Appraisal of Environment Risk Assessment

Synopsis

Goklany argues that selective application of this principle distorts the policy debate.

Excerpt

“What shall we do, what shall we do!” he cried. “Escaping goblins to be caught by wolves!”

—J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, p. 98

So what do we do if we come to a fork in the road and one way leads through territory inhabited by goblins and the other through country infested by wolves? Which road should we take? Does it even matter if we take one road and not the other?

Policymakers in the environmental and public health arena often face such dilemmas. DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) is a classic case. On one hand, this much-reviled chemical is a proven, cheap, and effective method of reducing malaria, a disease that annually afflicts 300 million people and claims over a million lives worldwide (WHO 2000). Over the years, DDT has saved millions of lives not only in Asia and Africa but also in Europe and the Americas. But DDT has also been implicated in the decline of a number of raptors such as the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon. It has been found in various avian eggshells, in the tissues of fish, and in mothers' milk. Some suspect it plays a role in advancing various human cancers and other disorders (Roberts 1999, Attaran et al. 2000, Tren and Bate 2001).

So what should be the policy toward DDT? Should it be banned because of its effects on birds and its hypothesized adverse public health effects? Should its use be encouraged because of its proven ability to combat malaria, one of nature's dread diseases? Or should different policies prevail in different areas, depending on whether those areas are plagued by malaria or host species that might be threatened by DDT?

Today's environmentalists have increasingly invoked the precautionary principle to solve such policy dilemmas. This principle is, essentially, a restatement of a popular rendition of the Hippocratic . . .

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