Precautionary principle: EEA report damning to industry
By Anne Eckstein | Thursday 24 January 2013
New technologies sometimes have extremely harmful effects but warning signs are often suppressed or ignored, which in some cases can lead to deaths, illness and environmental destruction. This is the warning issued by the European Environment Agency (EEA) in a report published on 23 January
(1). It condemns industry and scientists that may voluntarily minimise or deny potential risks to protect their own interests.
“This is a fundamental but damning document on non-application of the precautionary principle and the absence of implementation of the 12 proposals presented by the EEA in 2001,” said MEP Corinne Lepage (ALDE, France) at the press conference presenting the report. Its publication is likely to make a splash coming at the height of the controversy over the EFSA opinion confirming the toxicity of nicotinoids for bees.
The EEA brought the problem to light in 2001. Ten years later, it notes that little if any progress has been made in applying the precautionary principle. Case studies look into industrial mercury poisoning, fertility problems caused by pesticides, hormone-disrupting chemicals in plastics and pharmaceuticals that are changing ecosystems. The report also examines the warning signs emerging from technologies now in use, such as mobile phones, genetically modified organisms and nanotechnology.
The agency demonstrates that warnings have been ignored or sidelined until damage to health and the environment was inevitable. Companies, it notes, put short-term interests ahead of public safety, either hiding or ignoring the evidence of risk, and scientists downplay risk, sometimes under pressure from interest groups. Five of the 20 case studies illustrate the benefits of quickly responding to early warnings.
Technologies are now being taken up more quickly than in the past and are often adopted worldwide rapidly. Risks can therefore spread faster and further, surpassing society’s capacity to understand, recognise and respond in time to avoid harmful consequences.
The EEA recommends wider use of the precautionary principle to reduce potential risks of largely untested technologies and chemicals. Scientific uncertainty, it explains, is not a justification for inaction when there is plausible evidence of potentially serious harm. The precautionary principle is almost always beneficial.
Science should acknowledge the complexity of biological and environmental systems, especially when there may be multiple causes of many different effects. The EEA recommends a more holistic approach encompassing many different disciplines, which would also improve understanding and prevention of potential hazards. Policy makers should respond to early warnings more quickly, especially in cases of large-scale emerging technologies. The EEA proposes that those causing any future harm should pay for the damage.
Risk assessment can also be improved by embracing uncertainty more broadly: “no evidence of harm” has often wrongly been taken to mean “evidence of no harm” when no relevant research was available. The EEA adds that new forms of governance involving citizens in choices about innovation pathways and risk analysis could be helpful and greater interaction between business, governments and citizens could promote more robust and diverse innovation at less cost to health and the environment.
“No evidence of harm” has often wrongly been taken to mean “evidence of no harm” when no relevant research was available(1) ‘Late lessons from early warning’, available at www.eea.europa.eu