What is the Precautionary Principle?

In simple terms the precautionary principle says "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". It's common sense.
The precautionary principle guides us to take action now, as individuals and as a society, to prevent harm to human health and the environment before it happens.

There are over 100,000 synthetic chemicals approved for market use today, from preservatives in our lipstick to flame retardants in our sofas, from plasticizers in our water bottles to pesticides on our fruit and vegetables. Less than 10% of these chemicals have been tested for their effects on human health. We know that the average American carries at least 116 chemicals in his or her body, yet scientists can tell us next to nothing about the lifetime effects of living with this toxic "cocktail" of chemicals.

Cancer, asthma, Alzheimer's disease, birth defects and developmental disabilities are becoming increasingly common and there is a growing body of evidence linking these serious health problems to the chemicals we're exposed to in our air, water and food. It's time to put prevention first.

Today, the environmental laws and regulations that guide the decisions we make about public health and the environment focus on managing risks rather than preventing harm. The Precautionary Principle shifts this kind of decision-making to a more comprehensive approach that looks at alternatives to a current activity, stresses meaningful public participation, and looks at all of the costs (economic, health, environmental) that are involved in a project or activity.

For example, in a traditional risk management model, a local Recreation and Parks manager would ask "How much arsenic is okay to allow in arsenic-treated wood playground equipment?" Following a precautionary principle approach, the manager would ask "do we need to use arsenic treated wood at all?" and "what are the alternatives to using arsenic treated wood"? Risk management asks "How much harm is allowable?" while the precautionary principle asks "How little harm is possible?"

Taking precaution means acting now to protect our health. It means putting human health and the environment at the center of our local, state, national, and global decisions so that all individuals and communities, especially those who are most affected, can be protected before harm is done.

The Bay Area Working Group
on the Precautionary Principle

The Bay Area Working Group on the Precautionary Principle is a diverse collaborative of organizations and individuals that promotes and implements precautionary action to protect health and the environment. We create fundamental changes in decision making that build healthier, more just, and sustainable communities.

Learn more

Get an introduction to the Precautionary Principle from Rachel's Environment and Health News

Check out this factsheet for a quick and easy summary of the Precautionary Principle.

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