The Precautionary Principle

The precautionary principle is a proactive approach to managing risk. New materials represent potential health and environmental risks. Applying the precautionary principle to new materials involves rejecting the assumption that substances are safe if they have not had a full characterization study, developing regulatory standards even though there is scientific uncertainty, and taking precautions to minimize potential risks (Warshaw 2012, 386). While the precautionary approach may have many benefits, there are also costs associated with this approach that may be acceptable by some and not by others.

One of the easiest ways to reduce environmental and health risks of new materials is to regulate them before use becomes ubiquitous. Applying the precautionary principle to new materials can avoid these health or environmental issues before they arise. Limiting exposure to toxic substances in doses that are detrimental can avoid potentially irreversible damages to health and the environment (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 220). Avoiding toxic pollution proactively also can reduce clean up costs and health costs as well (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 225). While avoiding toxicity risks that new materials can pose has the potential to reduce health, environmental, and economic issues, it also has the potential to increase costs.

One of the first issues with applying the precautionary principle in regulating new materials focuses on how to choose the appropriate regulatory standard. Governments must choose on whether to use health-based, feasibility, or risk-benefit approaches in managing potentially toxic materials (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 218). Many toxic materials can be unsafe at low levels, so attempting to reduce risk to zero for those materials can be extremely costly (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 219). Efforts to eliminate risks face issues with scientific uncertainty as well. Many new materials may have beneficial uses that would be stymied if regulated prior to longer term study and analysis that show no issues (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 218). Precautionary principle approaches to new materials could be improved if mitigating some of the issues by requiring testing and study of categories of chemicals that are higher risk and less requirements for safer categories (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 213).

Precautionary Principle in Practice

The precautionary principle can be vague in use, and highly complex when it comes to actually applying the concept. The concept brings up similarities with statistical testing in my brain. False positives are like when a substance would be thought of as harmful even though they are later found to be safe when more uncertainty has been removed. These false positives would be an error type of applications of the precautionary principle (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 218). However, false negatives represent more of how we do business today where substances are often allowed until they find issues later on further testing. In a healthcare setting, it is best to avoid false negatives because it prevents treatment. However, in a court setting, it is best to avoid false positives and imprison innocent people. Historically, the approach the United States has taken is more of a court approach where the goal is to avoid false positives. However, as we have seen in the Clean Air Act, and other environmental acts, health issues should be the most important factor above cost and feasibility. For this reason, I think we should be erring more on the side of making false positives instead of false negatives by using the precautionary principle as best as can be applied to specific situations.

Often times the precautionary principle can not be validated until well after events have taken place. If the use of precautionary principle actions mitigate an issue, people can make the claim that the risk was never actually real in the first place and created unnecessary costs. If the use of the precautionary principle does not fix the issue fully, then people can claim that it was costly and ineffective as well. I think that issue is why many politicians especially are reticent to place their name on things that are precautionary. Either way they can be seen as doing something wrong, even if it was a success, so they would rather take a reactive approach to show that they took actions that had measurable change or savings instead of avoided costs, which are much more nebulous to prove.

Author: Logan Callen


Salzman, James, and Barton H. Jr. Thompson. 2019. Environmental Law and Policy. 5th ed. St. Paul, MN: Foundation Press.

Warshaw, Jean. 2012. “The Trend Towards Implementing the Precautionary Principle in US Regulation of Nanomaterials.” Dose-Response 10 (3): 384-396.

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