Academic journal article Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Applying the Precautionary Principle to the Environment

Academic journal article Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Applying the Precautionary Principle to the Environment

Article excerpt

Kirk Smith's provocative piece (1) comes at a time when there is much debate over the precautionary principle. It is challenging to reflect on how this principle interacts with the issues he raises, particularly as each of his "examples of harm" are examples of actions for which the precautionary principle could be invoked to a greater or lesser degree.

My thesis is that the precautionary principle applies to our actions in the name of public health and the environment just as much as it does to the actions of industry. The following three recent examples of public health actions resulting in harm could well have benefited from a more thorough precautionary analysis.

In Bangladesh the rapid replacement of potentially contaminated surface water with tube wells for drinking-water has caused serious arsenic poisoning because the groundwater stratum tapped by the wells has naturally high arsenic levels.

In the United States the careless requirement of methyl tert-butyl ether in levels as high as 15% in gasoline in order to reduce air pollution has inevitably led to significant groundwater contamination from what is now known to be a potential carcinogen,

In Egypt a hepatitis C epidemic in rural Nile villages appears to be due to a campaign to inject everyone with an anti-schistosomiasis compound. The campaign unfortunately did not include adequate needle sterilization. …

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