Today’s post is a little wonkish but it’s a topic I find fascinating. Manda Aufochs Gillespie on the Green Mama website poses the issue that most chemicals that make their way into our food, beauty, health, and cleaning products are not tested. Many are but most aren’t. We have a generally industry-supportive approach which gives a green light to products unless there is harm that can be proved.
The alternative, which is more prevalent in Europe, for one, is the precautionary principle: if a substance that is to be introduced has a significant chance of being harmful, even if it is not yet proven, then we wait until it is proven safe. Where is the burden of proof: that something is harmful or that it is safe?
A move to the precautionary principle is a no brainer. Yet it’s important to realize that it isn’t necessarily a simple task.
In an article for the National Institute of Health, Bernard Goldstein argues similarly for the introduction of the precautionary principle into our regulatory system for all kinds of new policies—for instance the introduction of new medicines, land use policies, and even environmental protection policies. (He cites an instance where the Environmental Pollution Agency approved an additive to gasoline to decrease carbon monoxide emissions which introduced a toxic carcinogen into the atmosphere.) Yet he also discusses the requirements that regulators would have to adopt in making this change.
First, he says the precautionary principle requires a greater breadth of outlook. Agencies must look beyond the specific good intended by a policy to consider a broad range of outcomes. Second, agencies must take a coordinated approach. Third, there needs to be better scrutiny of results after policies are implemented. These are important but difficult changes for large bureaucracies to make.
I heard a podcast not long ago on the Ezra Klein show that discussed how Environmental Impact Statements, though a great advance in our planning approach, at times have been used by advocacy groups focused on a single issue to block developments that were important for other environmental and humanitarian reasons, for instance the blocking of building public housing in California. The public too can fall into the trap of fragmentary thinking.
Here is the lesson I draw from all this. We need to take a more precautionary approach in introducing new products as well as policies. We need a safer world, after all. But operating in what is already a highly complex and fragmented society we need to be sure that we are taking in the bigger picture while addressing particular potential harms.