The Risk-Monger

This is the first of a two part blog – in a few days, I will suggest a viable policy alternative to precaution.

The EU’s use of the precautionary principle has become counter-productive – a tool manipulated by cunning political interests resulting in increased environmental-health risks. Its very raison d’être, to restore trust in science, has been turned on its head by activists and functionaries in the European Environment Agency, with certain sciences being selectively vilified. Legislation like REACH and the Pesticides Directive (that naively cite the precautionary principle without clearly defining it) are fast becoming unworkable. In short, the European Commission should cease using this vague concept and revise texts where it has been carelessly cited before damage to health and the environment becomes irreversible.

Disclaimer: Before I get too far, let me say that I am not a reckless person and I do not embrace carelessness. Precaution is a natural impulse – when an infant is learning to walk, the arms automatically rise up to prepare for landing. But natural impulses do not necessarily make good objective policy foundations.

There are many different definitions of precaution. The 1992 Rio Earth Summit definition states that in cases where situations are serious (like potential global warming), we cannot afford to wait for scientific certainty before acting (in triple negative form: just because we are not certain, is not a reason for not acting). The 2000 Commission Communication on the Precautionary Principle states that in cases where scientific information is uncertain, insufficient or inconclusive (like when cows go mad), precautionary measures are advisable. The 2001 European Environment Agency report: Late Lessons from Early Warnings stressed the reversal of the burden of proof: unless science can prove that something is safe, precaution must be taken. I sincerely hope that EEA precaution architects like David Gee simply did not realise how difficult it is for scientists to prove that something is safe, otherwise his promotion of this approach could be considered as malicious and destructive. Given that David Gee was previously a director for Friends of the Earth (a golden moment of activist collusion in government – something that outrages so many NGOs), it is very hard to remain positive in their assumptions.

As the Treaty only has half a sentence about precaution, it remains inherently vague in proper legal application. The definition of precaution widely used though is the EEA interpretation with the strict reversal of the burden of proof. In REACH (circa 2005), people started talking about substitution (for substances that could not be proven to be safe) and shortly afterwards, target lists started being drawn up. When I was involved (going back to the White Paper, and before Wallström’s activism), there was no concentration on substitution (it was only about “assessment” – not “assessment and substitution”). The Pesticide Directive goes even further. Precaution will be applied to pesticides that cannot be proven to not exhibit endocrine disrupting properties. I wonder if they will compare it to soy as well – a widely consumed natural substance that has far greater endocrine disrupting properties.

Seven reasons we should abandon the EEA application of precaution:

1: Precaution reverses the burden of trust

The shift of the burden of proof is a pragmatic shift. Previously, governments would legislate when a product, substance or practices was deemed to be unsafe – this took time, money and influence to move (and in cases like tobacco, cultural and physiological obstacles as well). So a reactive impulse would be to not allow products or substances onto the market until scientists could prove it was safe. Safety though is not an objective concept and the safety demand can easily be politicised and made impossible. Anti-GMO activists will raise concocted safety concerns ad infinitum; those who don’t want pesticides will play with low dose and cocktail possibilities to try to show that insignificant residue exposures can never be completely safe.

More importantly is the underlying tone that scientists do not care about safety and cannot be trusted in their research. The reversal of the burden of proof is not only impossible, it leaves a perception that they are guilty until proven innocent. Even if main scientific bodies are able to prove some satisfying degree of safety (eg, GMOs by EFSA, FAO and the WTO), there is still a trust deficit (simply by continuing to make them prove safety is enough to shape perceptions).

2: Precaution uses a different, non-scientific logic

My mother would often tell me to bring a sweater during summer heat-waves. She cared about me and I would never get into scientific arguments with her. Caring and concern follow another form of logic. I take that precautionary practice with me today. I always have an umbrella in my briefcase, even when the scientists tell me that there is zero chance of rain. Am I right to bring my umbrella? No – without the rain, there was no logical reason for it. Am I wrong to bring my umbrella? No – I will bring it tomorrow as well (just in case!). This precautionary practice shows how not being right is not the same as being wrong. The beauty about precaution is that I am never wrong.

This is different from a scientific logic which assumes that I am either right or wrong, and if I am right (and there are substantial benefits), then I have the right to develop my research. Scientists do not understand precautionary policy-makers – they do not share the same logic.

3: Precaution promotes political irresponsibility

It is very attractive for policy-makers if they are never seen to be wrong. And rather than not being right, they can be perceived to be concerned or caring, which policy-makers today would not choose the precautionary principle when faced with a difficult decision? Such short-sightedness promotes yesterday’s safety over tomorrow’s gains. Nobody looks back at disastrous decisions – who was responsible for banning DDT before malaria was eradicated? Who was responsible for biofuels subsidies or food policy decisions that are leading to serious food security issues? Nobody asks because they were always so concerned and caring at the time. With this situation, policy-makers can say anything they want as they speak to their constituencies. During the debate on the Pesticides Directive, rapporteur and German Green MEP Hiltrud Breyer capitalised on the issue of the bees and the question of colony collapse, calling to invoke the precautionary principle and immediately halt all use of pesticides. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, but would Breyer have been wrong if she had got away with it? No, just really, really not right.

Precaution is an invitation to irresponsible political tactics. Irresponsible in that precaution does lead to consequences – not only when they get it wrong, but also when they hold up valuable research. As precautionary measures are starting to encircle nanotechnology and synthetic biology research, one needs to consider what any precautionary delays or obstacles will do to progress in new treatments and delivery systems that address diseases that afflict millions. Since we shall never know that, we most certainly could never attribute responsibility. This is wrong.

4: False positives can be catastrophic

In 2003, at a SCALE meeting, EEA functionary David Gee once proudly said that the Late Lessons report did not give examples of false positives (cases where precautionary measures were mistaken and detrimental) because they did not know of any. Many of us in the audience were offering examples, but I suppose he was not in a listening mood that day. When precaution gets it wrong, it can be devastating. During the Great Plague of London, civic leaders thought the plague was spread by cats (not science, but superstition) and took precautionary measures to eradicate them. The rats thought that was just fine. Malaria continues to kill around 3000 people a day (mostly children and mostly in Africa). This tragedy has entered its fourth decade after precautionary measures were taken to ban DDT on the erroneous belief that eagle egg shells were affected by DDT. Today public perceptions towards vaccinations have turned negative because of precautionary voices from MMR in the UK to fears of contamination or industry conspiracy theories. What will be the consequences of such precautionary behaviour? Who will be responsible for the losses of lives?

5: Precaution confuses risk management with uncertainty management

I don’t want to get too technical here (I have published an article on this if anyone is interested). In brief, risk management looks at the hazards, weighs the benefits and tries to manage any exposures so that the benefits can be attained. Uncertainty management sees hazards (NGO approach: risk = hazard) as something uncertain and needing to be avoided (benefits are not part of the equation). Take the example of an investor: a risk manager will see uncertainty and find the right investments to take best advantage of the markets’ movements; an uncertainty manager will take the money out of the market – point. Using precaution is uncertainty management – quite willing to forego benefits in order to avoid managing risks.

6: A whiff of precaution causes supply chains to recalibrate

NGO activists know full well that the game is about supply chains, not about legislation. Supply chains use a complex web of substances and practices in their production processes. Should a substance be under the precautionary microscope, downstream users are not going to wait until the substance or practice is legislated out to retool their process – they will look for alternatives that will give them a competitive advantage or a better CSR smell. This is the motivation behind Greenpeace’s comic Green Electronics rankings. And by the time the precautionary game has blown over and the substance is proven to be safe, the downstream users will have found alternatives and they are not going to bother going back to using the old product or process (in fact they may join in on the campaign to protect their investment and advantage). Mission accomplished, the NGOs are happy and the only costs go to the consumer and the environment (as many alternatives that were rushed into have not undergone the same level of risk assessments as the substances under question – the risk-risk paradigm).

7: Precaution is a tool in the competition of alternatives

Whether they know it or not, NGO activists are used as mercenaries in industry battles for alternatives. Innovation and development is expensive for companies today, and market advantage can be more easily gained if a competitor’s substance or process be legislated out or perceived to be banned soon by precautionary measures. So we should not be surprised if companies raise the alarm about environmental-health risks of products their competitors make (when I was at Cefic, I raised the alarm of how REACH was going to institutionalise this practice). The classic example is the debate over brominated flame retardants which protect plastics from burning. Should we be so surprised that legislation against these substances started in Norway and Washington State (both areas are home to significant aluminium businesses that would profit immensely if plastics could not be economically protected from burning)? Shouldn’t we be asking where NGOs got all of the financing for expensive blood tests in their anti-bromine campaigns?

These seven reasons demonstrate that the EU should re-examine its approach to precaution, limit the influence of the EEA and find alternative forms of regulatory risk management. As this blog is rather long (sorry), I will propose my view of a reasonable alternative to precaution in another blog in the coming days. If you are interested in carrying on the discussion, I will be speaking on this subject in the European Parliament in Brussels on February 10 in the first of a series of science policy breakfasts. The talk is entitled: Trust in Science and the Precautionary Principle. I would be happy to send you an invitation offline.

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  1. Alissa, I moved your question here from the about page:
    Hi David –
    You say in your most recent post under “Precaution confuses risk management with uncertainty management” that you have a more detailed article on the subject – can you share that with me or give me the citation info so I can look it up? Thanks so much!
    You can find it in an article entitled: Perceptions of Risk, found in “Risks Challenging Publics, Scientists and Governments”, Menoni (ed), London: Taylor and Francis Group, 2010, p 93-100. I have added an excerpt with more assessment of the shfit from Rio to the burden:

    But the EU seems to be talking about uncertainty management rather than risk management. What is the difference here?

     Not knowing is not a reason for doing nothing – in other words, if there is uncertainty, then one must not be inactive. This is risk management.

     Not knowing is a reason for doing something – in other words, if there is uncertainty, one must do something. This is uncertainty management.

    Precaution has moved from risk management in Rio – where uncertainty was not a reason to not act (that precaution should not be avoided because we do not know) – to uncertainty management in Brussels, where uncertainty was a reason to act (that precaution should be applied because we do not know). This is not simply a clever splitting of double negatives. In the business world it may seem clearer: risk management would imply that I should not avoid investing if I do not know the outcome; uncertainty management would imply that I should avoid investing if I do not know the outcome – which implies no investment.

    These two approaches lead to different applications of precaution based on different perceptions of risk. If you are a scientist or an industry representative, and you believe that risks are inherent in all activities, and that risk-taking can lead to benefits, then precaution is a question of managing the risks. Chlorine is a product with enormous benefits but its hazards must be managed properly (not being certain is not a reason for not doing something, thus benefits would imply managing the risk). If, like NGO representatives, you believe that all risks should be avoided in order to protect the environment and human health, then precaution is an uncertainty management question. The environment and health effects of chlorine are not completely certain, thus we must act to limit this uncertainty.

    Where the benefits are not patently obvious, policy-makers are closer to the NGO position given the political consequences of losing control of the risks.

    Thus how precaution is used is dependent on how one perceives risk. If one perceives risks negatively, then precaution is about uncertainty management – to limit any exposure to risks. If one sees opportunities from risk taking, then precaution is about how to manage those risks to avoid any possible negative aspects.

  2. Dear David,

    As much as I can agree with you that the precautionary principle is not effective at all, nor barely worth the paper it’s written on, I’d like to comment on paragraph 4 (false positives).

    If you think that DDT is harmless (after more than 25 years of banning it in Western Europe), I would strongly recommend you to read Silent Spring (Rachel Carlson, 1962) which should provide you with a bit more than just stories about softented eagle shells. Thus, eradication programmes may makes sense to save lifes, provided that the environment afterwards is still inhabitable for both humans and nature.



  3. Indeed Rachel Carson is a powerful writer who has been motivational and inspirational to her cause. But a lot of her research conclusions were anecdotal. Bald eagle populations were noted to be in serious decline since the 1920s, several decades before DDT was introduced into their food chain. Some of the attempts to replicate her postulations were disgracefully corrupted (feeding birds DDT while having them on low calcium diets). Credible research has been unable to prove Carson right and there are many other potential causes for the drop in bald eagle populations from the 1920s to 1950s (including illegal hunting). DDT has been condemned and there has been no new official research since the 1980s. Even if Carson were right, estimates show that perhaps 100 eagles more would have survived. Years ago, malaria claimed its one billionth victim.

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