Enviro-Mich message from Tracey Easthope <email@example.com
A new and exciting report was just released by the European
Environment Agency which draws key lessons from the history
of using precaution in policy-making. The contamination
of the Great Lakes is one of the case studies used in
the analysis. The recommendations by the study could help
define a policy approach to decision making when there
is scientific uncertainty.
Copenhagen, 15 January 2002
For immediate release
EEA draws key lessons from history on using precaution
in policy-making Twelve key lessons for decision-making
have emerged from a ground-breaking analysis by the European
Environment Agency of cases
- from the damaging of the ozone layer by CFC chemicals
to the "mad cow" disease epidemic - where public
policy was formulated against a background of scientific
uncertainty or surprise developments, or where clear evidence
of hazards to people and the environment was ignored.
A new EEA report published today, Late lessons from early
warnings: the precautionary principle 1896-2000, examines
how the concept of precaution has been applied - or not
- by policy-makers over the past century when addressing
a broad range of hazards linked to public health and the
environment in Europe and North America.
The report should help to improve mutual understanding
between Europe and the United States on the use of the
precautionary principle in policy-making. The debate has
been marked by disputes over the safety of synthetic hormones
in beef and of genetically modified plants and foods.
"Our central conclusion is that the very difficult
task of maximising innovation whilst minimising hazards
to people and their environments could be undertaken more
successfully in future if the twelve 'late lessons' drawn
from the histories of the hazards studied in this report
were heeded," said Domingo Jiménez-Beltrán, EEA Executive
The report's 14 case studies, contributed by experts
in their respective fields, provide many examples where
inaction by regulators had costly and unforeseen consequences
for human health and the environment or where early warnings,
and even "loud and late" warnings, of problems
were clearly ignored.
The consequences range from the deaths of hundreds of
thousands of people from the asbestos cancer mesothelioma,
to the over-exploitation and subsequent collapse of fisheries
in Canada, California and Scotland, with devastating impacts
on local communities.
The 12 "late lessons" drawn from the case studies
include the following:
* Be realistic about how materials will be used and disposed
of in everyday life.
* Don't allow regulatory authorities to be "captured"
by vested interests.
* Avoid allowing one or two materials to monopolise the
market - as was the case with asbestos, CFCs and the group
of versatile but harmful industrial chemicals known as
PCBs - by developing diverse ways of meeting human needs.
* When evaluating risks, ensure that not only all relevant
specialist expertise is used but also "lay"
and local knowledge.
* Follow up early warnings of problems with long-term
environmental and health monitoring.
Poul Harremoës, Professor of Environmental Science and
Engineering at the Technical University of Denmark and
chair of the report's editorial team, said: "The
use of the precautionary principle can bring benefits
beyond the reduction of health and environmental impacts,
stimulating both more innovation, via technological diversity
and flexibility, and better science.
"The case studies show how harmful and costly misuse
or neglect of the precautionary principle can be,"
he continued. "But over-precaution can also be expensive,
in terms of lost opportunities for innovation and lost
lines of scientific enquiry.
"If more account is taken - scientifically, politically
and economically of a richer body of information from
more diverse sources, then society may be considerably
more successful at achieving a better balance between
innovations and their hazards in the future. The twelve
'late lessons' distilled from the case studies could help
to achieve this better balance."
Professor Harremoës added: "None of the lessons
would themselves remove the dilemmas of decision-making
under situations of uncertainty and high stakes. They
cannot eradicate uncertainties or avoid the consequences
of ignorance. But they would at least increase the chances
of anticipating costly impacts, of achieving a better
balance between the pros and cons of technological innovations
and of minimising the costs of unpleasant surprises."
The case studies cover the BSE or "mad cow"
crisis; the use of synthetic hormones and antimicrobial
agents to promote growth in farm animals; the use of the
cancer-causing synthetic hormone DES to prevent miscarriages
in women; over-exploitation of fisheries in the northern
hemisphere; the use of medical radiation, asbestos, CFCs,
and the chemicals benzene, MTBE (a substitute for lead
in petrol), tributyl tin (an antifoulant for boats and
ships) and PCBs; chemical contamination of North America's
Great Lakes; and air pollution from sulphur dioxide.
The report is an example of the kind of information that
is needed to help the European Union and EEA member countries
frame and identify sound and effective policies that protect
the environment and contribute to sustainable development.
It also seeks to help clarify the definitions of key terms,
disagreement over which has added to the intrinsic difficulties
of applying the precautionary principle in practice.
Mr Jiménez-Beltrán said: "The precautionary principle
is not just an issue for the European Union: its potential
impact on trade means that its application can have global
repercussions. The current dialogue between the EU and
the United States on the use and application of precaution
is partly affected by confusion about the meaning of terms
used in the debate.
"This report should contribute to a greater and
shared understanding about past decisions on hazardous
technologies and therefore, we hope, to improved transatlantic
agreement about future decisions. It may also help the
dialogue within both the EU and the United States, where
there are healthy debates about the pros and cons of applying
the precautionary principle."
The 12 "late lessons" are:
- Acknowledge and respond to ignorance, as well as uncertainty
and risk, in technology appraisal and public policy-making.
- Provide adequate long-term environmental and health
monitoring and research into early warnings.
- Identify and work to reduce blind spots and gaps in
- Identify and reduce interdisciplinary obstacles to
- Ensure that real world conditions are adequately accounted
for in regulatory appraisal.
- Systematically scrutinise the claimed justifications
and benefits alongside the potential risks.
- Evaluate a range of alternative options for meeting
needs alongside the option under appraisal, and promote
more robust, diverse and adaptable technologies so as
to minimise the costs of surprises and maximise the benefits
- Ensure use of "lay" and local knowledge,
as well as relevant specialist expertise in the appraisal.
- Take full account of the assumptions and values of
different social groups.
- Maintain regulatory independence from interested parties
while retaining an inclusive approach to information and
- Identify and reduce institutional obstacles to learning
- Avoid "paralysis by analysis" by acting to
reduce potential harm when there are reasonable grounds
The report and its individual chapters can be downloaded
from the EEA web site at
Printed copies are also available on request.
Notes for editors The precautionary principle governs
the use of foresight in decision-making in situations
characterised by uncertainty and ignorance and where both
regulatory action and inaction carry potentially large
costs. The principle is enshrined in the European Union
treaty. The most significant support for the principle
in Europe has come from the European Commission's Communication
on the Precautionary Principle, the European Parliament's
resolution on the Communication and the Council of Ministers'
Nice resolution on the precautionary principle, all issued
Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle
1896-2000 is published by the EEA as Environmental Issue
report no. 22. It will also be published in spring 2002
by Earthscan Publications Ltd. For more information, see
About the EEA
The European Environment Agency aims to support sustainable
development and to help achieve significant and measurable
improvement in Europe's environment through the provision
of timely, targeted, relevant and reliable information
to policy making agents and the public. Established by
the European Union (EU) in 1990 by Council Regulation
1210/90 (subsequently amended by Council Regulation 933/1999),
the Agency is the hub of the European environment information
and observation network (EIONET), a network of some 600
environmental bodies and institutes across Europe.
Located in Copenhagen and operational since 1994, the
EEA is open to all countries that share its objectives
and are able to participate in its activities. Since 1
January 2002 the Agency has 29 member countries. These
are the 15 EU Member States; Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein,
which are members of the European Economic Area; and 11
of the 13 countries in central and eastern Europe and
the Mediterranean area that are seeking accession to the
EU - Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary,
Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Romania, Slovenia and the Slovak
Republic. Their membership makes the EEA the first EU
body to take in the candidate countries. It is anticipated
that the two remaining candidate countries, Poland and
Turkey, will ratify their membership agreements over the
next few months. This will take the Agency's membership
to 31 countries.
Tracey Easthope, MPH Director, Environmental Health Project
Ecology Center 117 N. Division Ann Arbor, MI 48104 P
734-663-2400 x 109 F 734-663-2414