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Implications of the Precautionary Principle: is it a threat to science?

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  • 1University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, Pittsburgh, PA 15261, USA.


Scientific research is of proven value to protecting public health and the environment from current and future problems. We explore the extent to which the Precautionary Principle is a threat to this role for science and technology. Not surprisingly for a relatively simple yet still incompletely defined concept, supporters of the Precautionary Principle come from different viewpoints, including a viewpoint that is at least uneasy with the role of science, and particularly its use in risk assessment. There are also aspects of the Precautionary Principle that inherently restrict obtaining and using science. The Hazardous Air Pollutant (HAP) provisions in the US Clean Air Act Amendments are an example of the Precautionary Principle, which both shifted the burden of proof so that the onus is now on showing a listed compound is harmless, and required maximum available control technology (MACT) instead of a primarily risk-based approach to pollution control. Since its passage in 1990 there has been a decrease in research funding for studies of HAPs. Other potential problems include that once MACT regulations are established, it may be difficult to develop new technological approaches that will further improve air pollution control; that by treating all regulated HAPs similarly, no distinction is made between those that provide a higher or lower risk; and that there is a perverse incentive to use less well studied agents that are not on the existing list. As acting on the Precautionary Principle inherently imposes significant costs for what is a potentially erroneous action, additional scientific study should be required to determine if the precautionary action was successful. If we are to maximize the value of the Precautionary Principle to public health and the environment, it is crucial that its impact not adversely affect the potent preventive role of science and technology.

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