Natural Life Magazine

Precautionary Principle

Better Safe Than Sorry
Using the Precautionary Principle During a Pandemic
By Wendy Priesnitz

My mother always used to tell me that it was “better to be safe than sorry.” Her many clichés often annoyed me, and they often were contradictory or just plain wrong. However, I now believe that this one was correct. It is, in fact, one of the foundations of common sense – certainly in terms of making decisions about health and environmental matters, but perhaps in other aspects of life too. And it has come to be called the Precautionary Principle.

A precautionary approach is caution taken in advance, or caution practiced in the context of uncertainty in order to anticipate harm before it occurs. It aims to prevent harm from the outset rather than manage it after the fact. Under the Precautionary Principle (which is enshrined in the law of the European Union but not in those of other countries, and in some international treaties like the Rio Declaration from the 1992 Earth Summit and the Convention on Biological Diversity), it is the responsibility of the proponent of an activity or manufacturer of a product to establish that it will not (or is very unlikely to) result in significant harm. As a tool of policy makers, it is said to have formed the basis of social democratic environmental policies in West Germany, including measures to address the effects of acid rain on forests.

The 1998 Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, resulting from a conference of the Science and Environmental Health Network in Wisconsin, summarizes the principle this way: “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.”

“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.”

The Precautionary Principle is one of several decision-making principles used internationally to regulate chemicals in both products and our environment. There are tens of thousands of chemicals approved for market use today, from preservatives in our lipstick to flame retardants in our sofas, from plasticizers in our water bottles to pesticides on our fruit and vegetables. Contrary to common assumptions, the effects on human health from these chemicals have not been fully researched. For instance, we do not know as much as we could about their multiple or cumulative effects, or their effects on women and on children, whose smaller size might make them more vulnerable to negative effects. In addition, a great deal of scientific research is funded by the corporations that manufacture or use these chemicals, rather than by government-accredited, independent laboratories.

So it should be clear why the Precautionary Principle is necessary when governments make decisions about these potential toxins. At the same time, such regulatory decisions must balance precaution with an agreed-upon level of acceptable risk that factors in potential negative impacts on society (such as personal freedoms), the economy, and so on.

All of these issues have come together via Covid-19. In 2020, we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic created by a virus that is not yet fully understood by the best medical minds. Governments have found themselves making decisions – some of which have been shown to be controversial – about ways to protect the health of their citizens and economies in an environment where cause-and-effect relationships related to Covid-19 are not fully established scientifically, and where the science is rapidly evolving. Whether they are using the terminology or not, they are applying the Precautionary Principle.

But we have discovered that precaution is not totally accepted by everyone. In general, the Precautionary Principle is unpopular with many libertarians, pro-business commentators, and conservative think tanks, so it is not surprising that there has been a backlash against precautions taken by many governments on behalf of their citizens during the pandemic. The general concern is that the application of the Precautionary Principle could smother economic activity, shut down innovation and risk-taking, and in some cases infringe on personal freedoms. Relative to the pandemic, those issues manifest as protests and the spread of false information regarding rules about hand washing, social distancing, mask-wearing, and limitations on or closures of businesses. These public health requirements are designed as precautions against community spread of the virus that could overwhelm health care systems and even kill people.

Nevertheless, we take precautions all the time in life, and many of them are government-mandated. Aside from those countries that have enshrined the Precautionary Principle in the way they regulate chemicals, many governments have laws mandating protections such as seatbelt use, speed limits, bicycle helmets, and labour laws. Dr. Devra Davis – epidemiologist, author, and founder of the Environmental Health Trust – makes this comment on the wisdom of precaution: “We do not wait for buildings to fall down or bridges to collapse before reinforcing and inspecting them for safety; we do not wait for boats to sink before requiring that they carry life jackets. We have enough knowledge [on many topics] to make ‘informed choices’.”

Taking Our Own Precautions

Even if governments, corporations, or our neighbors are playing fast and loose with our health or that of the environment, as individuals we can take our own precautionary approach. We dont have to live with fear as some Covid skeptics portray those who are being cautious, but we can accept simple precautions to protect ourselves, our families, and our communities.

Even in non-pandemic times, we can avoid many chemicals by buying organic – not only food, but personal care products, bedding, and clothing as well. Educating ourselves about the various label claims and insignias will help avoid greenwashing and false claims. If labels aren’t clear, we have a right to know and should demand answers from manufacturers and pressure governments for full disclosure via better labeling. We can grow some of our own food organically. If our food is depleted in nutrients for various reasons, we can take supplements that can help counteract or protect us from the toxic effects of pollutants or viruses, and that boost our immune systems. We can test and filter our family’s drinking water and use filters if necessary. We can eliminate the use of commercial household and laundry cleaners, instead making our own from simple, harmless materials. There is a great deal of information on these topics to be found on this website and numerous other sources.

Beyond that, we can pressure governments to build the Precautionary Principle into legislation, and to test the effects of toxins, removing them from use when necessary. We can also pressure corporations to stop polluting our air, water, food, and the other products we buy. And we can support precautionary measures to protect our health and that of the environment. Better safe than sorry. Thanks, mom!

Oh, and don’t forget to wash your hands because that is a good precautionary principle at any time.  

Wendy Priesnitz is Natural Life Magazine's editor, and a journalist and author with over 45 years of experience.

 

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