Too often, individuals rather than government institutions or companies are expected to take primary responsibility for health and safety. For example, employers may require employees to wear personal protective equipment (which may be ill-fitting and cumbersome) instead of changing a risky practice or substituting a less hazardous substance. Or we are told that our behavior is what makes us get sick or stay well.
But we can’t avoid being exposed to toxic substances or dangerous conditions that we cannot control. Furthermore, our personal “choices” are limited by economic constraints, access to information, family obligations, workplace rights, and available alternatives.
Many environmental health hazards are caused by industrial practices and pollution that expose individuals and communities to chemicals, often without the people affected being given any information about potentially harmful effects. We may know little, for example, about pesticides sprayed on the foods we eat and chemicals used in our homes and workplaces.
It’s the responsibility of industry and government to ensure that information is properly disseminated and regulations are properly enforced, and to fund scientific studies that analyze the potential impact of different hazards, as well as respond to communities most affected. There are state and federal right-to-know laws that provide some access to critical information about exposure and potential effects, but these laws will make a difference only if communities insist on their implementation.
THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE OF PUBLIC HEALTH
Meanwhile, in a world of constant exposure to chemical contaminants, and after decades of public health nightmares like DDT and asbestos, we can no longer assume that products are safe. Only a few hundred of the tens of thousands of chemicals in use are adequately tested; many substances suspected to cause cancer or reproductive health problems are not regulated at all.
Community activists, researchers, and advocates from the fields of science and health are calling for the increased use of a new kind of risk paradigm that encourages anticipatory action in the absence of scientiic certainty. This Precautionary Principle states, “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”
Jennifer Coleman of the Oregon Environmental Council explains: “Today, tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals are ‘innocent until proven guilty’—that is, they are not thoroughly tested for hazards to health or the environment before they are used to make consumer goods. We need a chemical policy that ensures the safety of all consumer products before they reach the shelves. Until that occurs, we must work on banning or restricting the use of potentially harmful chemicals one at a time.”
The Precautionary Principle requires taking action in the face of uncertainty, shifting the burden of proof to those who create risks, and analyzing alternatives to potentially harmful activities. For more information, visit the Science & Environmental Health Network, which has numerous articles, statements, and government positions concerning the Precautionary Principle.