Asbestos anyone? In defence of the precautionary principle

Sam Lowe

03 June 2014

For the United States, what we would like to see is a scientific basis for regulations going forward.

Darci Vetter, Deputy Under Secretary at the US Department of Agriculture


With 80% of the predicted gains from EU-US Trade Agreement (TTIP) expected to come from the removal of regulatory barriers between the EU and US there has been justified concern about what this means for the EU’s generally more stringent regulation. The US, and industry professionals, have been pushing for a more ‘scientific’ basis for setting future regulation in the EU, especially in the area of chemicals and food. On the surface it seems there is little to object with … ensuring there is a ‘scientific basis’ for regulation, who could have a problem with that?

Well, these requests are slightly more insidious in their implication than is immediately apparent. Reading between the lines, what is actually being said is that the EU’s adoption of a precautionary approach to regulation is unscientific, unlike the US’s so called ‘science based’ approach.

To elaborate further on the differences in approach: In the EU, if there is a plausible risk, and science cannot yet determine the risk with certainty, then the precautionary principle may be applied. The burden of proof for convincing the regulator that a potentially risky product is safe would therein predominantly lie with those with a vested interest in seeing any resultant restrictions lifted. In the US, where the precautionary principle is not applied, the burden of proof is reversed, and instead the regulator is required to prove a product is unsafe before regulatory restrictions can be imposed. The difference in approach has led, for example, to the EU banning around 1300 substances from use in cosmetics in stark contrast to the US, which only bans 13.

The implications are staggering. If the EU is banning products out of turn, on the wishy-washy basis that they may potentially be of harm to humans and the environment, then they are needlessly costing companies millions and holding back priceless innovation.

With that being the case, surely any convergence within TTIP with US regulatory standards would be of infinite benefit to the EU economy and its citizens? What are we all so worried about?

There are a couple of directions I could go here  … it would be ever so easy to point out that the US regulator is so weak and in thrall to the chemical lobby that they haven’t even got around to banning asbestos yet. But that would be far too easy. I’m more intrigued by the implications themselves, which imply that the EU’s adoption of precautionary principle ultimately inhibits innovations, is entirely inappropriate and is exorbitantly costly to business and in-turn the economy as a whole. This entire characterisation rests firmly on one key notion: that there are countless examples of instances where the precautionary principle has been applied unnecessarily. I mean, there’s got to be … right?

What’s that? There’s not? Weird.

It turns out the European Environment Agency released a report last year examining this very issue. After reviewing 88 cases that industry and supporters have used as examples of the precautionary principle being applied unnecessarily  they concluded that only four of the 88 so called 'false positive' cases could really be clasified as such. In fact, about one third of the industry proclaimed false positive cases were found to pose real risks to human health or the environment. The full breakdown can be seen in the graph below:



To reiterate: of all the times the precautionary principle has been applied, it can only be said to have resulted in unnecessary regulation four times. I’ll take that over an asbestos plagued roof any day (couldn’t help myself).

On the flip-side, here are ten cases where we would have undoubtedly benefitted from regulators acknowledging early warning signs and adopting a precautionary approach. One thing common to all of these examples is that industry-backed scientists and vested interests at some point told us that there was really nothing to worry about, and were completely wrong:

  1. The use of lead in petrol
  2. PCE contamination of mains water
  3. The release of methylmercury-contaminated effluent into water and its links to minamata disease
  4. Beryllium as a cause of disease in those working with nuclear weapons
  5. The link between smoking tobacco and lung cancer
  6. Vinyl chloride’s damaging impact on the skin and bones of workers, and the livers of animals
  7. The pesticide DBCP causing male infertility
  8. The detrimental impacts of booster biocide antifoulants on non-target species
  9. The insecticide DDT’s threat to birds
  10. Man-made climate change


So, ask yourself, why do the US and industry want the EU to scrap or water down its precautionary approach? I can think of one big reason … and it has nothing to do with our health and safety.


Sam is a Campaigner in the Food, Land and Water Security Programme and tweets @SamuelMarcLowe

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