Precautionary Principle | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 87 Issue 8 | p. 4 | Letters
Issue Date: February 23, 2009

Precautionary Principle

Department: Letters


Feb. 2, page 18: The water treatment plant associated with Asiatan’s leather tannery in Jiangmen, China, removes particles from the effluent and lowers the chemical oxygen demand of the water. The article stated that heavy metals are also removed, but Asiatan says it avoids using heavy metals in its processes.

TOO OFTEN, criticisms of the precautionary principle are viewed as attacks on environmentalism, or the failure to put human health above the profits of industry (C&EN, Jan. 12, page 3). What must be communicated to the precautionary principle’s proponents is that its application can cause inadvertent environmental harm or risk to human health because it is a fundamentally flawed method of decision-making.

In my book “Lies, Damned Lies, and Science: How To Sort through the Noise around Global Warming, the Latest Health Claims, and Other Scientific Controversies” (FT Press Science, 2009), I show—in the context of the controversy over bisphenol A, genetically engineered food, and other issues—that when the precautionary principle is applied to one technology, the alternative technologies are treated as if they are risk free.

The precautionary principle paints technologies as either “good” or “bad” without an appropriate context for comparison. Only by comparing all alternative technologies can a sensible selection be made. Properly reasoned decisions are based on cost-benefit analyses, which compare the environmental, human health, and economic risks and benefits of all alternatives. Not everyone will weigh costs and benefits the same way, but cost-benefit analyses at least get all the pros and cons of all the alternatives on the table rather than ignoring half the story, as does the widely applied precautionary principle.

Sherry Seethaler
La Jolla, Calif.

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