Precautionary principle
The precautionary principle or precautionary approach states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public
In public relations and communication science, publics are groups of individuals, and the public is the totality of such groupings. This is a different concept to the sociological concept of the Öffentlichkeit or public sphere. The concept of a public has also been defined in political science,...

 or to the environment
Natural environment
The natural environment encompasses all living and non-living things occurring naturally on Earth or some region thereof. It is an environment that encompasses the interaction of all living species....

, in the absence of scientific consensus
Scientific consensus
Scientific consensus is the collective judgment, position, and opinion of the community of scientists in a particular field of study. Consensus implies general agreement, though not necessarily unanimity. Scientific consensus is not by itself a scientific argument, and it is not part of the...

 that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.

This principle allows policy makers to make discretionary decisions in situations where there is the possibility of harm from taking a particular course or making a certain decision when extensive scientific knowledge on the matter is lacking. The principle implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk. These protections can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result.

In some legal systems, as in the law of the European Union, the application of the precautionary principle has been made a statutory requirement.

Formulations of the precautionary principle

Many definitions of the precautionary principle exist. Precaution may be defined as "caution in advance," "caution practised in the context of uncertainty," or informed prudence
Prudence is the ability to govern and discipline oneself by the use of reason. It is classically considered to be a virtue, and in particular one of the four Cardinal virtues .The word comes from Old French prudence , from Latin...

. All definitions have two key elements.
  1. an expression of a need by decision-makers to anticipate harm before it occurs. Within this element lies an implicit reversal of the onus of proof: under the precautionary principle it is the responsibility of an activity proponent to establish that the proposed activity will not (or is very unlikely to) result in significant harm.
  2. the establishment of an obligation, if the level of harm may be high, for action to prevent or minimise such harm even when the absence of scientific certainty makes it difficult to predict the likelihood of harm occurring, or the level of harm should it occur. The need for control measures increases with both the level of possible harm and the degree of uncertainty.

One of the primary foundations of the precautionary principle, and globally accepted definitions, results from the work of the Rio Conference, or "Earth Summit
Earth Summit
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development , also known as the Rio Summit, Rio Conference, Earth Summit was a major United Nations conference held in Rio de Janeiro from 3 June to 14 June 1992.-Overview:...

" in 1992. Principle #15 of the Rio Declaration notes:

"In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation."
This definition is important for several reasons. First, it explains the idea that scientific uncertainty should not preclude preventative measures to protect the environment. Second, the use of "cost-effective" measures indicates that costs can be considered. This is different from a "no-regrets" approach, which ignores the costs of preventative action.

The 1998 Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle
Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle
The Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle was a three day academic conference where the precautionary principle was defined. The January 1998 meeting took place at Wingspread, headquarters of the Johnson Foundation in Racine, Wisconsin, and involved 35 scientists, lawyers, policy...

 summarizes the principle this way: "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically." (The Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle was convened by the Science and Environmental Health Network ).

The February 2, 2000 European Commission Communication on the Precautionary Principle notes: "The precautionary principle applies where scientific evidence is insufficient, inconclusive or uncertain and preliminary scientific evaluation indicates that there are reasonable grounds for concern that the potentially dangerous effects on the environment, human, animal or plant health may be inconsistent with the high level of protection chosen by the EU".

The January 29, 2000 Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety says: "Lack of scientific certainty due to insufficient relevant scientific information . . . shall not prevent the Party of import, in order to avoid or minimize such potential adverse effects, from taking a decision, as appropriate, with regard to the import of the living modified organism in question."

It is important to emphasize that, although this principle operates in the context of scientific uncertainty, it is considered by its proponents to be applicable only when, on the basis of the best scientific advice available, there is good reason to believe that harmful effects might occur.

The precautionary principle is most often applied in the context of the impact of human actions on the environment
Natural environment
The natural environment encompasses all living and non-living things occurring naturally on Earth or some region thereof. It is an environment that encompasses the interaction of all living species....

 and human health
Health is the level of functional or metabolic efficiency of a living being. In humans, it is the general condition of a person's mind, body and spirit, usually meaning to be free from illness, injury or pain...

, as both involve complex system
Complex system
A complex system is a system composed of interconnected parts that as a whole exhibit one or more properties not obvious from the properties of the individual parts....

s where the consequences of actions may be unpredictable.

As applied to environmental policy, the precautionary principle stipulates that for practices such as the release of radiation or toxins or massive deforestation
Deforestation is the removal of a forest or stand of trees where the land is thereafter converted to a nonforest use. Examples of deforestation include conversion of forestland to farms, ranches, or urban use....

 the burden of proof lies with the advocates. Concerning potential risks to public health, examples of cases in which the precautionary principle has been advocated (but not always accepted) are: the commercialization of genetically modified foods, the use of growth hormones in cattle raising, measures to prevent the "mad cow" disease, health claims linked to phthalates in PVC
Polyvinyl chloride is a plastic.PVC may also refer to:*Param Vir Chakra, India's highest military honor*Peripheral venous catheter, a small, flexible tube placed into a peripheral vein in order to administer medication or fluids...

 toys, among many others.

An important element of the precautionary principle is that its most meaningful applications pertain to those that are potentially irreversible, for example where biodiversity
Biodiversity is the degree of variation of life forms within a given ecosystem, biome, or an entire planet. Biodiversity is a measure of the health of ecosystems. Biodiversity is in part a function of climate. In terrestrial habitats, tropical regions are typically rich whereas polar regions...

 may be reduced. With respect to bans on substances like mercury in thermometers, freon in refrigeration, or even carbon dioxide exhaust from automobile engines and power plants, it implies:
The concept includes an implicit ethical responsibility towards maintaining the integrity of natural systems, and acknowledges the fallibility of human understanding.

Origins and theory

The formal concept evolved out of the German socio-legal tradition in the 1930s, centering on the concept of good household management. In German the concept is Vorsorgeprinzip, which translates into English as precaution principle.

Many of the concepts underpinning the precautionary principle pre-date the term's inception. For example, the essence of the principle is captured in a number of cautionary aphorism
An aphorism is an original thought, spoken or written in a laconic and memorable form.The term was first used in the Aphorisms of Hippocrates...

s such as "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure", "better safe than sorry", and "look before you leap". The precautionary principle may also be interpreted as the evolution of the ancient medical principle of "first, do no harm
Primum non nocere
is a Latin phrase that means "First, do no harm". The phrase is sometimes recorded as .Nonmaleficence, which derives from the maxim, is one of the principal precepts of medical ethics that all medical students are taught in medical school and is a fundamental principle for emergency medical...

" to apply to institutions and institutional decision-making processes rather than individuals.

The precautionary principle is in some ways an expansion of the English common law concept of ‘duty of care’ originating in the decisions of the judge Lord Esher in the late 1800s. According to Lord Esher: “Whenever one person is by circumstances placed in such a position with regard to another that everyone of ordinary sense who did think, would at once recognise that if he did not use ordinary care and skill in his own conduct with regard to those circumstances, he would cause danger or injury to the person, or property of the other, a duty arises to use ordinary care and skill to avoid such danger”. This statement clearly contains elements of foresight and responsibility, but does not refer to a lack of certainty, as the word “would” is used rather than “might”, or “could”. The other important difference is that the duty of care applies only to people and property, not to the environment.

In economics
Economics is the social science that analyzes the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. The term economics comes from the Ancient Greek from + , hence "rules of the house"...

, the precautionary principle has been analysed in terms of the effect on rational decision-making of the interaction of irreversibility
In science, a process that is not reversible is called irreversible. This concept arises most frequently in thermodynamics, as applied to processes....

 and uncertainty
Uncertainty is a term used in subtly different ways in a number of fields, including physics, philosophy, statistics, economics, finance, insurance, psychology, sociology, engineering, and information science...

. Authors such as Epstein (1980) and Arrow and Fischer (1974) show that irreversibility of possible future consequences creates a quasi-option
Option (finance)
In finance, an option is a derivative financial instrument that specifies a contract between two parties for a future transaction on an asset at a reference price. The buyer of the option gains the right, but not the obligation, to engage in that transaction, while the seller incurs the...

 effect which should induce a "risk
Risk is the potential that a chosen action or activity will lead to a loss . The notion implies that a choice having an influence on the outcome exists . Potential losses themselves may also be called "risks"...

-neutral" society to favor current decisions that allow for more flexibility in the future. Gollier et al. (2000) conclude that "more scientific uncertainty as to the distribution of a future risk– that is, a larger variability of beliefs– should induce Society to take stronger prevention measures today."


The application of the precautionary principle is hampered by both lack of political will, as well as the wide range of interpretations placed on it. One study identified 14 different formulations of the principle in treaties and nontreaty declarations. R.B. Stewart (2002) reduced the precautionary principle to four basic versions:
  1. Scientific uncertainty should not automatically preclude regulation of activities that pose a potential risk of significant harm (Non-Preclusion PP).
  2. Regulatory controls should incorporate a margin of safety; activities should be limited below the level at which no adverse effect has been observed or predicted (Margin of Safety PP).
  3. Activities that present an uncertain potential for significant harm should be subject to best technology available requirements to minimize the risk of harm unless the proponent of the activity shows that they present no appreciable risk of harm (BAT PP).
  4. Activities that present an uncertain potential for significant harm should be prohibited unless the proponent of the activity shows that it presents no appreciable risk of harm (Prohibitory PP).

In deciding how to apply the principle, analysis may use a cost-benefit analysis
Cost-benefit analysis
Cost–benefit analysis , sometimes called benefit–cost analysis , is a systematic process for calculating and comparing benefits and costs of a project for two purposes: to determine if it is a sound investment , to see how it compares with alternate projects...

 that factors in both the opportunity cost
Opportunity cost
Opportunity cost is the cost of any activity measured in terms of the value of the best alternative that is not chosen . It is the sacrifice related to the second best choice available to someone, or group, who has picked among several mutually exclusive choices. The opportunity cost is also the...

 of not acting, and the option value of waiting for further information before acting. One of the difficulties of the application of the principle in modern policy-making is that there is often an irreducible conflict between different interests, so that the debate necessarily involves politics
Politics is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. The term is generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs, including behavior within civil governments, but also applies to institutions, fields, and special interest groups such as the...


Strong vs. weak

Strong precaution holds that regulation is required whenever there is a possible risk to health, safety, or the environment, even if the supporting evidence is speculative and even if the economic costs of regulation are high. In 1982, the United Nations
United Nations
The United Nations is an international organization whose stated aims are facilitating cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress, human rights, and achievement of world peace...

 World Charter for Nature gave the first international recognition to the strong version of the principle, suggesting that when "potential adverse effects are not fully understood, the activities should not proceed." The widely publicized Wingspread Declaration, from a meeting of environmentalists in 1998, is another example of the strong version. 'Strong precaution' can also be termed as a "no-regrets" principle, where costs are not considered in preventative action.

Weak precaution holds that lack of scientific evidence does not preclude action if damage would otherwise be serious and irreversible. Humans practice weak precaution every day, and often incur costs, to avoid hazards that are far from certain: we do not walk in moderately dangerous areas at night, we exercise, we buy smoke detectors, we buckle our seatbelts.

According to a publication by the New Zealand Treasury Department,

The weak version [of the Precautionary Principle] is the least restrictive and allows preventive measures to be taken in the face of uncertainty, but does not require them (eg, Rio Declaration 1992; United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change 1992). To satisfy the threshold of harm, there must be some evidence relating to both the likelihood of occurrence and the severity of consequences. Some, but not all, require consideration of the costs of precautionary measures. Weak formulations do not preclude weighing benefits against the costs. Factors other than scientific uncertainty, including economic considerations, may provide legitimate grounds for postponing action. Under weak formulations, the requirement to justify the need for action (the burden of proof) generally falls on those advocating precautionary action. No mention is made of assignment of liability for environmental harm.

Strong versions justify or require precautionary measures and some also establish liability for environmental harm, which is effectively a strong form of “polluter pays”. For example, the Earth Charter
Earth Charter
The Earth Charter is an international declaration of fundamental values and principles considered useful by its supporters for building a just, sustainable, and peaceful global society in the 21st century...

 states: “When knowledge is limited apply a precautionary approach …. Place the burden of proof on those who argue that a proposed activity will not cause significant harm, and make the responsible parties liable for environmental harm.” Reversal of proof requires those proposing an activity to prove that the product, process or technology is sufficiently “safe” before approval is granted. Requiring proof of “no environmental harm” before any action proceeds implies the public is not prepared to accept any environmental risk, no matter what economic or social benefits may arise (Peterson, 2006). At the extreme, such a requirement could involve bans and prohibitions on entire classes of potentially threatening activities or substances (Cooney, 2005). Over time, there has been a gradual transformation of the precautionary principle from what appears in the Rio Declaration to a stronger form that arguably acts as restraint on development in the absence of firm evidence that it will do no harm.

International agreements and declarations

The World Charter for Nature, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1982, was the first international endorsement of the precautionary principle. The principle was implemented in an international treaty as early as the 1987 Montreal Protocol
Montreal Protocol
The Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer is an international treaty designed to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production of numerous substances believed to be responsible for ozone depletion...

, and among other international treaties and declarations is reflected in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development
Rio Declaration on Environment and Development
The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, often shortened to Rio Declaration, was a short document produced at the 1992 United Nations "Conference on Environment and Development" , informally known as the Earth Summit...

 (signed at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development).

"Principle" vs. "approach"

No introduction to the precautionary principle would be complete without brief reference to the difference between the precautionary principle and the precautionary approach. Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration 1992 states that: “in order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall be not used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” As Garcia (1995) pointed out, “the wording, largely similar to that of the principle, is subtly different in that: (1) it recognizes that there may be differences in local capabilities to apply the approach, and (2) it calls for cost-effectiveness in applying the approach, e.g., taking economic and social costs into account.” The ‘approach’ is generally considered a softening of the ‘principle’.

"As Recuerda has noted, the distinction between the ´precautionary principle` and a ´precautionary approach` is diffuse and, in some contexts, controversial. In the negotiations of international declarations, the United States has opposed the use of the term ´principle` because this term has special connotations in legal language, due to the fact that a ´principle of law` is a source of law. This means that it is compulsory, so a court can quash or confirm a decision through the application of the precautionary principle. In this sense, the precautionary principle is not a simple idea or a desideratum but a source of law. This is the legal status of the precautionary principle in the European Union. On the other hand, an ´approach` usually does not have the same meaning,16 although in some particular cases an approach could be binding. A precautionary approach is a particular ´lens` used to identify risk that every prudent person possesses (Recuerda, 2008)

European Commission

On 2 February 2000, the European Commission
European Commission
The European Commission is the executive body of the European Union. The body is responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the Union's treaties and the general day-to-day running of the Union....

 issued a Communication on the precautionary principle, in which it adopted a procedure for the application of this concept, but without giving a detailed definition of it. Paragraph 2 of article 191 of the Lisbon Treaty states that

"Union policy on the environment shall aim at a high level of protection taking into account the diversity of situations in the various regions of the Union. It shall be based on the precautionary principle and on the principles that preventive action should be taken, that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source and that the polluter should pay."

After the adoption of the European Commission's Communication on the precautionary principle, the principle has come to inform much EU policy, including that in areas beyond that of environmental policy. It is implemented, for example, in the EU food law and also affects, among others, policies relating to consumer protection, trade and research, and technological development. While a comprehensive definition of the precautionary principle was never formally adopted by the EU, a working definition and implementation strategy for the EU context has been proposed by Rene von Schomberg in Fisher et al. (2006):

"Where, following an assessment of available scientific information, there are reasonable grounds for concern for the possibility of adverse effects but scientific uncertainty persists, provisional risk management measures based on a broad cost/benefit analysis whereby priority will be given to human health and the environment, necessary to ensure the chosen high level of protection in the Community and proportionate to this level of protection, may be adopted, pending further scientific information for a more comprehensive risk assessment, without having to wait until the reality and seriousness of those adverse effects become fully apparent".


On July 18, 2005, the City of San Francisco passed a Precautionary Principle Purchasing ordinance, which requires the city to weigh the environmental and health costs of its $600 million in annual purchases – for everything from cleaning supplies to computers. Members of the Bay Area Working Group on the Precautionary Principle including the Breast Cancer Fund, helped bring this to fruition.


In 1997, Japan tried to use the consideration of the precautionary principle in a WTO SPS Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures
Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures
The Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures - also known as the SPS Agreement is an international treaty of the World Trade Organization...

 case, as Japan’s requirement to test each variety of agricultural products (apples, cherries, peaches, walnuts, apricots, pears, plums and quinces) for the efficacy of treatment against codling moths was challenged.

This moth is a pest that does not occur in Japan, and whose introduction has the potential to cause serious damage. The United States claimed that it was not necessary to test each variety of a fruit for the efficacy of the treatment, and that this varietal testing requirement was unnecessarily burdensome.


The most important Australian court case so far, due to its exceptionally detailed consideration of the precautionary principle, is Telstra Corporation Limited v Hornsby Shire Council. The case was heard in the New South Wales Land and Environment Court under Justice CJ Preston (24 April 2006).

The Principle was summarised by reference to the NSW Protection of the Environment Administration Act 1991, which itself provides a good definition of the principle:

"If there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reasoning for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation. In the application of the principle… decisions should be guided by:
(i) careful evaluation to avoid, wherever practicable, serious or irreversible damage to the environment; and
(ii) an assessment of risk-weighted consequence of various options".

The most significant points of Justice Preston's decision are the following findings:
  1. The principle and accompanying need to take precautionary measures is "triggered" when two prior conditions exist: a threat of serious or irreversible damage, and scientific uncertainty as to the extent of possible damage.
  2. Once both are satisfied, "a proportionate precautionary measure may be taken to avert the anticipated threat of environmental damage, but it should be proportionate."
  3. The threat of serious or irreversible damage should invoke consideration of five factors: the scale of threat (local, regional etc.); the perceived value of the threatened environment; whether the possible impacts are manageable; the level of public concern, and whether there is a rational or scientific basis for the concern.
  4. The consideration of the level of scientific uncertainty should involve factors which may include: what would constitute sufficient evidence; the level and kind of uncertainty; and the potential to reduce uncertainty.
  5. The principle shifts the burden of proof. If the principle applies, the burden shifts: "a decision maker must assume the threat of serious or irreversible environmental damage is… a reality [and] the burden of showing this threat… is negligible reverts to the proponent…"
  6. The precautionary principle invokes preventative action: "the principle permits the taking of preventative measures without having to wait until the reality and seriousness of the threat become fully known".
  7. “The principle should not be used to try to avoid all risks."
  8. The precautionary measures appropriate will depend on the combined effect of "the degree of seriousness and irreversibility of the threat and the degree of uncertainty… the more significant and uncertain the threat, the greater…the precaution required". “…measures should be adopted… proportionate to the potential threats".


The Body Shop International
Body shop
Body shopping is the practice of consultancy firms recruiting information technology workers in order to contract their services out on short-term bases...

, a UK-based cosmetics company, recently included the Precautionary Principle in their 2006 Chemicals Strategy.


Fields typically concerned by the precautionary principle are the possibility of:
  • Global warming
    Global warming
    Global warming refers to the rising average temperature of Earth's atmosphere and oceans and its projected continuation. In the last 100 years, Earth's average surface temperature increased by about with about two thirds of the increase occurring over just the last three decades...

     or abrupt climate change
    Abrupt climate change
    An abrupt climate change occurs when the climate system is forced to transition to a new state at a rate that is determined by the climate system itself, and which is more rapid than the rate of change of the external forcing...

     in general
  • Extinction
    In biology and ecology, extinction is the end of an organism or of a group of organisms , normally a species. The moment of extinction is generally considered to be the death of the last individual of the species, although the capacity to breed and recover may have been lost before this point...

     of species
  • Introduction of new and potentially harmful products into the environment, threatening biodiversity
    Biodiversity is the degree of variation of life forms within a given ecosystem, biome, or an entire planet. Biodiversity is a measure of the health of ecosystems. Biodiversity is in part a function of climate. In terrestrial habitats, tropical regions are typically rich whereas polar regions...

     (e.g., genetically modified organisms)
  • Threats to public health
    Public health
    Public health is "the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private, communities and individuals" . It is concerned with threats to health based on population health...

    , due to new diseases and techniques (e.g., AIDS
    Acquired immune deficiency syndrome or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome is a disease of the human immune system caused by the human immunodeficiency virus...

     transmitted through blood transfusion)
  • Long term effects of new technologies (e.g. health concerns regarding radiation from cell phones and other electronics communications devices Mobile phone radiation and health
    Mobile phone radiation and health
    The effect of mobile phone radiation on human health is the subject of recent interest and study, as a result of the enormous increase in mobile phone usage throughout the world . Mobile phones use electromagnetic radiation in the microwave range...

  • Persistent or acute pollution (asbestos
    Asbestos is a set of six naturally occurring silicate minerals used commercially for their desirable physical properties. They all have in common their eponymous, asbestiform habit: long, thin fibrous crystals...

    , endocrine disruptors...)
  • Food safety (e.g., Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
    Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
    Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease or CJD is a degenerative neurological disorder that is incurable and invariably fatal. CJD is at times called a human form of mad cow disease, given that bovine spongiform encephalopathy is believed to be the cause of variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease in humans.CJD...

  • Other new biosafety
    Biosafety: prevention of large-scale loss of biological integrity, focusing both on ecology and human health .Biosafety is related to several fields:*In ecology ,...

     issues (e.g., artificial life
    Artificial life
    Artificial life is a field of study and an associated art form which examine systems related to life, its processes, and its evolution through simulations using computer models, robotics, and biochemistry. The discipline was named by Christopher Langton, an American computer scientist, in 1986...

    , new molecule
    A molecule is an electrically neutral group of at least two atoms held together by covalent chemical bonds. Molecules are distinguished from ions by their electrical charge...


The precautionary principle is often applied to biological
Biology is a natural science concerned with the study of life and living organisms, including their structure, function, growth, origin, evolution, distribution, and taxonomy. Biology is a vast subject containing many subdivisions, topics, and disciplines...

 fields because changes cannot be easily contained
Containment was a United States policy using military, economic, and diplomatic strategies to stall the spread of communism, enhance America’s security and influence abroad, and prevent a "domino effect". A component of the Cold War, this policy was a response to a series of moves by the Soviet...

 and have the potential of being global. The principle has less relevance to contained fields such as aeronautics
Aeronautics is the science involved with the study, design, and manufacturing of airflight-capable machines, or the techniques of operating aircraft and rocketry within the atmosphere...

, where the few people undergoing risk
Risk is the potential that a chosen action or activity will lead to a loss . The notion implies that a choice having an influence on the outcome exists . Potential losses themselves may also be called "risks"...

 have given informed consent
Informed consent
Informed consent is a phrase often used in law to indicate that the consent a person gives meets certain minimum standards. As a literal matter, in the absence of fraud, it is redundant. An informed consent can be said to have been given based upon a clear appreciation and understanding of the...

 (e.g., a test pilot
Test pilot
A test pilot is an aviator who flies new and modified aircraft in specific maneuvers, known as flight test techniques or FTTs, allowing the results to be measured and the design to be evaluated....

). In the case of technological innovation, containment of impact tends to be more difficult if that technology can self-replicate. Bill Joy
Bill Joy
William Nelson Joy , commonly known as Bill Joy, is an American computer scientist. Joy co-founded Sun Microsystems in 1982 along with Vinod Khosla, Scott McNealy and Andy Bechtolsheim, and served as chief scientist at the company until 2003...

 emphasized the dangers of replicating genetic technology, nanotechnology, and robotic technology in his article in Wired Magazine, "Why the future doesn't need us
Why the future doesn't need us
"Why the future doesn't need us" is an article written by Bill Joy in the April 2000 issue of Wired magazine...

", though he does not specifically cite the precautionary principle. The application of the principle can be seen in the public policy of requiring pharmaceutical companies to carry out clinical trial
Clinical trial
Clinical trials are a set of procedures in medical research and drug development that are conducted to allow safety and efficacy data to be collected for health interventions...

s to show that new medications are safe.

Oxford based philosopher Nick Bostrom
Nick Bostrom
Nick Bostrom is a Swedish philosopher at the University of Oxford known for his work on existential risk and the anthropic principle. He holds a PhD from the London School of Economics...

 discusses the idea of a future powerful superintelligence
A superintelligence, hyperintelligence or superhuman intelligence is a hypothetical entity which possesses intelligence surpassing that of any existing human being...

, and the risks that we/it face should it attempt to gain atomic level control of matter.

Application of the principle modifies the status of innovation and risk assessment
Risk assessment
Risk assessment is a step in a risk management procedure. Risk assessment is the determination of quantitative or qualitative value of risk related to a concrete situation and a recognized threat...

: it is not the risk that must be avoided or amended, but a potential risk that must be prevented. Thus, in the case of regulation of scientific research, there is a third party beyond the scientist and the regulator: the consumer
Consumer is a broad label for any individuals or households that use goods generated within the economy. The concept of a consumer occurs in different contexts, so that the usage and significance of the term may vary.-Economics and marketing:...


In an analysis concerning application of the precautionary principle to nanotechnology
Nanotechnology is the study of manipulating matter on an atomic and molecular scale. Generally, nanotechnology deals with developing materials, devices, or other structures possessing at least one dimension sized from 1 to 100 nanometres...

, Chris Phoenix and Mike Treder posit that there are two forms of the principle, which they call the "strict form" and the "active form". The former "requires inaction when action might pose a risk", while the latter means "choosing less risky alternatives when they are available, and [...] taking responsibility for potential risks."The academic Thomas Alured Faunce
Thomas Alured Faunce
Thomas Alured Faunce is an Associate Professor jointly in the College of Law and Medical School at the Australian National University at Canberra Australia...

 has argued for stronger application of the precautionary principle by chemical and health technology regulators particularly in relation to TI02 and ZNO nanoparticles in sunscreens, biocidal nanosilver in waterways and products whose manufacture, handling or recycling exposes humans to the risk of inhaling multi-walled carbon nanotubes.

Change of laws controlling societal norms

Associate Justice Martha Sosman's dissent in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health
Goodridge v. Department of Public Health
Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, 798 N.E.2d 941 , was a landmark state appellate court case dealing with same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. The November 18, 2003, decision was the first by a U.S...

, the decision of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts that mandated legalization of same sex marriage, is an example of the precautionary principle as applied by analogy to changes in culturally significant social policy. She describes the myriad societal structures that rest on the institution of marriage, and points out the uncertainty of how they will be affected by this re-definition. The disagreement of the majority illustrates the difficulty of reaching agreement on the value of competing perspectives. Although the Goodridge case involved interpreting the state constitution, the substantive canon in Anglo-American jurisprudence that derogations of fundamental societal values should be narrowly construed is analogous to the precautionary principle favoring a statutory interpretation
Statutory interpretation
Statutory interpretation is the process by which courts interpret and apply legislation. Some amount of interpretation is always necessary when a case involves a statute. Sometimes the words of a statute have a plain and straightforward meaning. But in many cases, there is some ambiguity or...

 that comports with rather than damages the common law and established norms. See, for example, Holy Trinity Church v. United States, 143 U.S. 457
Case citation
Case citation is the system used in many countries to identify the decisions in past court cases, either in special series of books called reporters or law reports, or in a 'neutral' form which will identify a decision wherever it was reported...


Resource management

Several natural resources like fish stocks are now managed by precautionary approach, through Harvest Control Rules (HCR) based upon the precautionary principle. The figure indicates how the principle is implemented in the cod
Cod is the common name for genus Gadus, belonging to the family Gadidae, and is also used in the common name for various other fishes. Cod is a popular food with a mild flavor, low fat content and a dense, flaky white flesh. Cod livers are processed to make cod liver oil, an important source of...

 fisheries management proposed by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea
Ices may refer to:*Frozen desserts, particularly within the United Kingdom*Frozen volatiles, in the context of astronomy and planetary science*Phases of iceICES may stand for:*Inflight Crew Escape System, in the Space Shuttle...


In classifying endangered species
Endangered species
An endangered species is a population of organisms which is at risk of becoming extinct because it is either few in numbers, or threatened by changing environmental or predation parameters...

, the precautionary principle means that if there is doubt about an animal's or plant's exact conservation status, the one that would cause the strongest protective measures to be realized should be chosen. Thus, a species like the Silvery Pigeon
Silvery Pigeon
The Silvery Pigeon , also known as Silvery Wood-pigeon or Grey Wood-pigeon is a species of pigeon found in Indonesia and Malaysia...

 that might exist in considerable numbers and simply be under-recorded or might just as probably be long extinct is not classified as "data deficient" or "extinct" (which both do not require any protective action to be taken), but as "critically endangered" (the conservation status that confers the need for the strongest protection), whereas the increasingly rare, but probably not yet endangered Emerald Starling is classified as "data deficient", because there is urgent need for research to clarify its status rather than for conservation action to save it from extinction.

If, for example, a large ground-water body that many people use for drinking water is contaminated by bacteria (e-coli 0157 H7, campylobacter or leptospirosis) and the source of contamination is strongly suspected to be dairy cows but the exact science is not yet able to provide absolute proof, then the cows should be removed from the environment until they are proved, by the dairy industry, not to be the source or until that industry ensures that such contamination will not recur.

Threshold of plausibility

The Wingspread Statement version of the PP takes the form "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically". When applying this principle, it is recommended that society establish a minimal threshold of scientific certainty or plausibility before undertaking precautions. Normally, no minimal threshold of plausibility is specified as a “triggering” condition, so that any indication that a proposed product or activity might harm health or the environment is sufficient to invoke the principle. Often the only precaution taken is a ban on the product or activity.

In Sancho vs. DOE
United States Department of Energy
The United States Department of Energy is a Cabinet-level department of the United States government concerned with the United States' policies regarding energy and safety in handling nuclear material...

, Helen Gillmor, Senior District Judge, wrote in a dismissal of Wagner's lawsuit which included a popular worry that the LHC
Large Hadron Collider
The Large Hadron Collider is the world's largest and highest-energy particle accelerator. It is expected to address some of the most fundamental questions of physics, advancing the understanding of the deepest laws of nature....

 could cause "destruction of the earth" by a black hole
Black hole
A black hole is a region of spacetime from which nothing, not even light, can escape. The theory of general relativity predicts that a sufficiently compact mass will deform spacetime to form a black hole. Around a black hole there is a mathematically defined surface called an event horizon that...

Injury in fact requires some “credible threat of harm.” Cent. Delta Water Agency v. United States, 306 F.3d 938, 950 (9th Cir. 2002). At most, Wagner has alleged that experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (the “Collider”) have “potential adverse consequences.” Speculative fear of future harm does not constitute an injury in fact sufficient to confer standing. Mayfield, 599 F.3d at 970.

Negative consequences of application

The Precautionary Principle may cause resentment, since people are more aware of negative changes than they are positive changes (i.e. a ban is more noted than allowing a proposal to proceed). Because of this effect, a technology which brings advantages may be banned by PP because of its potential for negative impacts, leaving the positive benefits unrealized.

The Hazardous Air Pollutant provisions in the 1990 amendments to the U.S. Clean Air Act are an example of the Precautionary Principle where the onus is now on showing a listed compound is harmless. Under this rule no distinction is made between those air Pollutants that provide a higher or lower risk, so operators tend to choose less-examined agents that are not on the existing list.

A California researcher has pointed out the fallacy of extrapolating possible risk of a proposed product or action, without examining equally closely the possible risks of not adopting the proposal. When looking at the proposal, policymakers tend to apply PP to that proposal while assuming the alternative(s) to be risk-free, which places an unfair burden on the proponents of the new product or activity.

Internal Inconsistency

The Precautionary Principle, applied to itself as a policy decision, may rule out its own use depending on the precise definition used. For example, Prohibitory PP as a policy decision would need to demonstrate that no substantial damage would result from the prohibition of products and technologies. For a potential example of this, the uncertain safety and long-term environmental effects of nuclear power led to its disfavor by precautionary groups, which may have resulted in greater carbon emissions through the use of coal power.

Michael Crichton
Michael Crichton
John Michael Crichton , best known as Michael Crichton, was an American best-selling author, producer, director, and screenwriter, best known for his work in the science fiction, medical fiction, and thriller genres. His books have sold over 200 million copies worldwide, and many have been adapted...

 wrote: The "precautionary principle," properly applied, forbids the precautionary principle. It is self-contradictory. The precautionary principle therefore cannot be spoken of in terms that are too harsh.


  • Critics of the principle argue that it is impractical, since every implementation of a technology carries some risk of negative consequences. For example, when the arrival of amplified music came on the scene, the risk of electrocution and deafness arose. However, this did not prevent it from becoming an artistic and cultural norm.

  • A summary of some representative objections to the precautionary principle are described in a Reason article
    Reason (magazine)
    Reason is a libertarian monthly magazine published by the Reason Foundation. The magazine has a circulation of around 60,000 and was named one of the 50 best magazines in 2003 and 2004 by the Chicago Tribune.- History :...

     by Ronald Bailey which, using the Wingspread consensus as a starting point, argues the possibilities for misapplication of the principle.

See also

  • Argument from ignorance
    Argument from ignorance
    Argument from ignorance, also known as argumentum ad ignorantiam or "appeal to ignorance" , is a fallacy in informal logic. It asserts that a proposition is true because it has not yet been proven false, it is "generally accepted"...

  • Benefit of the doubt (similar concept)
  • Best Available Technology
    Best Available Technology
    Best available technology is a term applied with regulations on limiting pollutant discharges with regard to the abatement strategy. Similar terms are best available techniques , best practicable means or best practicable environmental option...

  • Biodiversity
    Biodiversity is the degree of variation of life forms within a given ecosystem, biome, or an entire planet. Biodiversity is a measure of the health of ecosystems. Biodiversity is in part a function of climate. In terrestrial habitats, tropical regions are typically rich whereas polar regions...

  • Biosafety
    Biosafety: prevention of large-scale loss of biological integrity, focusing both on ecology and human health .Biosafety is related to several fields:*In ecology ,...

  • Biosecurity
    Biosecurity is a set of preventive measures designed to reduce the risk of transmission of infectious diseases, quarantined pests, invasive alien species, living modified organisms...

  • Complex systems
    Complex systems
    Complex systems present problems in mathematical modelling.The equations from which complex system models are developed generally derive from statistical physics, information theory and non-linear dynamics, and represent organized but unpredictable behaviors of systems of nature that are considered...

  • Diffusion of innovations
    Diffusion of innovations
    Diffusion of Innovations is a theory that seeks to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread through cultures. Everett Rogers, a professor of rural sociology, popularized the theory in his 1962 book Diffusion of Innovations...

  • Ecologically sustainable development
    Ecologically sustainable development
    Ecologically sustainable development is the environmental component of sustainable development. It can be achieved partially through the use of the precautionary principle, namely that if there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not...

  • Environmental law
    Environmental law
    Environmental law is a complex and interlocking body of treaties, conventions, statutes, regulations, and common law that operates to regulate the interaction of humanity and the natural environment, toward the purpose of reducing the impacts of human activity...

  • Health Impact Assessment
    Health Impact Assessment
    Health Impact Assessment is defined as "a combination of procedures, methods and tools bywhich a policy, program or project may be judged as to its potential effects on the...

  • Informed consent
    Informed consent
    Informed consent is a phrase often used in law to indicate that the consent a person gives meets certain minimum standards. As a literal matter, in the absence of fraud, it is redundant. An informed consent can be said to have been given based upon a clear appreciation and understanding of the...

  • Maximin principle

  • Micromort
    A micromort is a unit of risk measuring a one-in-a-million probability of death . Micromorts can be used to measure riskiness of various day-to-day activities. A microprobability is a one-in-a million chance of some event; thus a micromort is the microprobability of death. The micromort concept was...

  • Opportunity cost
    Opportunity cost
    Opportunity cost is the cost of any activity measured in terms of the value of the best alternative that is not chosen . It is the sacrifice related to the second best choice available to someone, or group, who has picked among several mutually exclusive choices. The opportunity cost is also the...

  • Pascal's Wager
    Pascal's Wager
    Pascal's Wager, also known as Pascal's Gambit, is a suggestion posed by the French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist Blaise Pascal that even if the existence of God could not be determined through reason, a rational person should wager as though God exists, because one living life...

  • Possible carcinogen
    Possible carcinogen
    Possible carcinogen is a category of the dangers of chemical exposure as recognized by the United States Environmental Protection Agency‎ .This is as opposed to "probable" or "known" carcinogen under EPA classifications of carcinogenicity....

  • Postcautionary principle
    Postcautionary principle
    The postcautionary principle is a principle of de facto environmental management formulated by John Paull in 2007. It is suggested that the postcautionary principle, as the antithesis of the precautionary principle, has guided environmental management, as it is actually practised.Taking the Rio...

  • Prevention of Disasters Principle
    Prevention of Disasters Principle
    In international law, the Prevention of Disasters Principle, as first elaborated in the UN Habitat II Agenda, permits states to take pre-emptive or restraining actions when a consensus of scientific opinion is that failing to do so will cause some disaster to occur. See also the Precautionary...

  • Proactionary Principle
    Proactionary principle
    An ethical and decision-making principle, the proactionary principle is formulated by the extropian philosopher Max More as follows:People’s freedom to innovate technologically is highly valuable, even critical, to humanity. This implies several imperatives when restrictive measures are proposed:...

  • Risk aversion
    Risk aversion
    Risk aversion is a concept in psychology, economics, and finance, based on the behavior of humans while exposed to uncertainty....

  • Safe trade
    Safe trade
    Safe trade is a slogan advocated by Greenpeace in its desire to "green" the World Trade Organisation and the Doha Development Round. It is designed to compete with "free trade" as a concept....

  • Substitution principle (sustainability)
  • Sustainability
    Sustainability is the capacity to endure. For humans, sustainability is the long-term maintenance of well being, which has environmental, economic, and social dimensions, and encompasses the concept of union, an interdependent relationship and mutual responsible position with all living and non...

  • Tombstone mentality
    Tombstone mentality
    Tombstone mentality is an aviation informal term that notes air safety is often improved only after somebody has died, which points out a fatal defect....

  • Traffic enforcement camera

Other publications

  • Communication from the European Commission on the precautionary principle Brusells (2000)
  • European Union (2002), European Union consolidated versions of the treaty on European Union and of the treaty establishing the European community, Official Journal of the European Union, C325, 24 December 2002, Title XIX, article 174, paragraph 2 and 3.
  • Greenpeace, "Safe trade in the 21 Century, Greenpeace comprehensive proposals and recommendations for the 4th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation" pp. 8–9
  • O’Riordan, T. and Cameron, J. (1995), Interpreting the Precautionary Principle, London: Earthscan Publications
  • Raffensberger C, Tickner J (eds.) (1999) Protecting Public Health and the Environment: Implementing the Precautionary Principle. Island Press, Washington, DC.
  • Recuerda Girela, M.A., (2006), Seguridad Alimentaria y Nuevos Alimentos, Régimen jurídico-administrativo. Thomson-Aranzadi, Cizur Menor.
  • Recuerda Girela, M.A., (2006), "Risk and Reason in the European Union Law", European Food and Feed Law Review, 5.
  • Sandin, P. "Better Safe than Sorry: Applying Philosophical Methods to the Debate on Risk and the Precautionary Principle," (2004).
  • Stewart, R.B. "Environmental Regulatory Decision making under Uncertainty". In An Introduction to the Law and Economics of Environmental Policy: Issues in Institutional Design, Volume 20: 71–126 (2002).
  • Sunstein, Cass R. (2005), Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle. New York: Cambridge University Press

External links

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