NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Dangers Of Precaution

November 8, 2000

The "precautionary principle," is being used to justify arbitrary restrictions on the use of new technologies on the grounds that they might be harmful -- in spite of a lack of scientific evidence that any harm is actually likely.

  • For example, in 1985 the European Commission banned the use of all animal growth promotion hormones even though its own inquiry had concluded that use of the three natural hormones posed no risk to human health.
  • And last year the Commission instituted an emergency ban on the use of phthalate plasticisers in baby toys although the scientific committee charged with analyzing their impact had concluded that after 40 years of use there was no evidence of ill effects.
  • Furthermore, the Biosafety Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity agreed to in Montreal in January 2000 imposes unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles in the way of trade in genetically modified organisms on "precautionary grounds."

There are at least 19 different definitions for "precautionary principle" in various international agreements and statements from different groups. Some would entail impossible-to-meet "zero risk" standards.

New technologies -- such as genetic modification of plants -- entail new risks, say experts, but they often enable us to control old risks better. For example, gas-fired heating entails a risk of explosions from leaks, but it reduces the risk of lung diseases resulting from coal-burning fires. But coal fires themselves reduced the risk of death from hypothermia.

Ironically, by preventing us from using newer, safer technologies, the precautionary principle can both limit our ability to cope with the risks we already face and make life more uncertain, undermining our capacity to cope with risks that might arise in the future.

Source: Julian Morris, ed., "Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle," November 2000, Institute of Economic Affairs, 2, Lord North Street, Westminster, London, SW1P 3LB, UK, (020) 7799 8900.

 

Browse more articles on Environment Issues