In this lesson, you will learn about the precautionary principle and how it applies to new technologies and products. You will also learn about how this principle is applied in different government regulations.

The Precautionary Principle

We make numerous decisions every day. Some of these are easy (chocolate or vanilla ice cream for dessert?), while some are more difficult (I hate my job; should I quit or stick it out?). The decisions we make are based on reasoning and judgment: we weigh our options, think of the pros and cons of each (not only for ourselves, but also others whom our decisions may affect), and then decide which outcome will be best.

Making decisions regarding environmental health is no different. The precautionary principle deals with this and is the idea that new actions should not be taken until we understand their ramifications. New technologies and products are being produced at an ever-increasing rate, but not all of them are safe for consumers and the environment. How do we decide which products should be available to consumers and how quickly they should be available?

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Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Using the precautionary principle requires that products be rigorously tested before reaching the market. This can be both time consuming and expensive, so one way companies work around this is to put out products with only minimal testing and then recall products that turn out to be unsafe. This approach is much like a criminal trial – the technology or product is innocent until proven guilty.

The benefit of using this approach is that new technologies and products can reach the market faster and cost less to produce because of the limited testing. The problem with this approach is that the effects of the products are unknown until the product is proven ‘guilty.’ Products that are unsafe can have short-term and long-term effects on human and environmental health, and giving consumers access before these effects are known is a risky gamble.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

The precautionary principle is based on the opposite assumption – that products and technologies are guilty until proven innocent. The idea is that products need to be thoroughly tested to fully understand any harm they may do, and not allow these products to reach the market until that time.

As mentioned before, this can be a very long and very expensive process. When using the precautionary principle, the safety risks of technologies and products that reach the market are very well understood, but they also reach the market at a much slower rate.

A Complicated Issue

Another issue that arises with the precautionary principle is who to hold responsible for the cost of testing. Should the manufacturer have to pay to prove that their product is safe or should the consumer have to absorb that cost in the price of the product? Should government have to foot the bill to prove that products are dangerous if companies don’t want to pay? What about the scientists doing the research? Should they be responsible for writing grants to find research funding?

If manufacturers do not want to do up-front testing, who ultimately pays when a product or technology turns out to be dangerous? Should manufacturers have to cover retribution costs of environmental clean-up or human health care? Should consumers be responsible for both the monetary and health costs of wanting new products faster (and with less thorough testing)? Should government be responsible because they failed to enforce safety and testing regulations?

These are certainly not easy questions to answer. However, some of them have been addressed through government policy, sometimes blending the two approaches together.

Regulations Vary Around the World

Each country is different, and the types of policies regarding market technologies and products is not necessarily the same among developed nations. For example, European nations heavily favor the precautionary principle – products are guilty until proven innocent. The U.S., however, is largely the opposite, putting products on the market until they are proven harmful. Even within the U.S. there is a great deal of variation.

Though responsible for their regulation, the Food and Drug Administration (or FDA) does not require approval of chemicals found in cosmetics before going to market. However, they do require extensive clinical testing for drugs and medical devices.

The Environmental Protection Agency (or EPA) is responsible for regulating pesticides and other substances. When new pesticides are manufactured, they must be approved by the EPA through a rigorous evaluation that involves examining the company’s research, product ingredients, and health risks to humans and the environment. However, the process also takes economic factors into account, and if the economic benefits outweigh the hazards of the new product, it often still makes it to the market.

Because hazards are not confined to the imaginary lines we draw around states and countries, there has also been international regulation to identify responsible parties and ensure that products on the market are safe for consumers and the environment. In 2001, The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants was an international treaty that addressed this very issue. It identified 12 of the most dangerous persistent organic pollutants, set international guidelines for phasing out the use of these chemicals, and recommended safer alternatives in manufacturing and industry.

Lesson Summary

All decisions have outcomes – some are as insignificant as what kind of dessert you will have after dinner. Others are more serious – will time and money be spent to fully understand the risks of new technologies and products, or should we forgo this testing to allow products to reach consumers more quickly?

If we decide to put effort in up front, the question then becomes: Who will pay for this rigorous testing? Companies? Government? Consumers?

If we decide to see products as ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ who will be responsible for dealing with the harmful effects they have? Who will pay for the damage done to human and environmental health (if the damage can even be reversed)?

This is a decision made by governments and manufacturers all over the world, and the answers vary from place to place. Europe is much in favor of the precautionary principle, fully understanding the hazards of new technologies and products before making them accessible to consumers. Others, such as the U.S., prefer to push new products and technologies to consumers when the economic benefits outweigh the environmental hazards.

Because both new products and environmental hazards are not confined to specific boundaries, international standards have also been implemented. The Stockholm Convention of 2001 is an international treaty that identified 12 of the most dangerous persistent organic pollutants and then decided that the responsibility of environmental health lay with industry. The results of this treaty were new international guidelines as well as recommendations for safer alternatives.

Learning Outcomes

Following this lesson, you will have the ability to:

  • Summarize what the precautionary principle is
  • Explain the complicated issues that surround the timing of putting products on the market
  • Describe the different approaches taken by Europe and the U.S. in terms of putting new products and technologies on the market
  • Identify the importance of the Stockholm Convention of 2001