Our court system is founded on the principle that the accused in any case is innocent until proven guilty; the Precautionary Principle in risk management takes the opposite approach. The idea is that a new process, product, or policy should be approached with caution — even resisted — until there is ample proof that it has no negative consequences.

History can provide us with good examples of chemicals that have been used freely until it was discovered that they posed dangers to human health or to the environment: arsenic, lead, and mercury were all used in ordinary household goods for many years. When lead was used in make up, there was no good way of testing its safety until it became clear from the consequences of its use that it was dangerous. Now, testing is routine and information about the safety of ingredients is widely available. Manufacturers are more sophisticated, regulations provide guidance, and brands take responsibility for environmental and health consequences.

Consumers are also more aware of and concerned about ingredients. They may or may not be more sophisticated than their counterparts in the days when adding “with Irium!” to packaging convinced shoppers that the product was a hi-tech miracle. Many modern consumers respond to “Natural!” in the same way, overlooking the sheer naturalness of arsenic, lead, and mercury. But modern consumers have access to enormous quantities of information — enough to spark attitudes like, “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t buy it!” and certainly enough to make the Precautionary Principle appealing.

The history of the Precautionary Principle

The term “Precautionary Principle” came into common use internationally after its introduction at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. It was used then as part of overall ideas on sustainable development, and has since spread in its use to many fields. It is not used identically in every context, but there is widespread agreement that it has a place in risk management, particularly in the context of human health and environmental responsibility.

Definitions of the term were offered at the conference mentioned above as well as the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity and the 2000 Protocol on Biosafety. In these and later discussion of the principle, there is agreement that this principle can be “triggered” by an uncertain threat. There is disageement on the level of threat and the level of uncertainty that can trigger the application of the principle, but it is not necessary to prove a specific threat.

Current discussions also include debate over whether issues like cost or potential benefit can offset the perceived possible threat.

Concerns about the Precautionary Principle

Use of the Precautionary Principle ranges from the strongest version — resist any action that has not been proven safe over the long term — to weaker versions that may simply require consideration of possible consequences before taking action. Still, there are concerns about the use of the Precautionary Principle in regulations.

Cost is one of the main concerns. This is not simply a matter of corporations saving money. When regulations become excessively costly, they can stifle innovation. Time to market for new and potentially beneficial solutions can be extended beyond the level manufacturers can support.

What’s more, the Precautionary Principle can prevent comparison of new options with existing options that may in fact be more potentially harmful. A “better safe than sorry” attitude could, in theory, have kept arsenic in wallpapers and lead in make up while new replacements were thoroughly tested. The life-saving effects of vaccinations, sulfa drugs, and antibiotics could have been delayed long enough to cause thousands or millions of deaths.

The Precautionary Principle, how to define it, and how it should be triggered, is still under discussion. It is likely to continue to be highly influential in European and U.S. chemical regulation compliance management.

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