Precautionary Tale

Under a draft ordinance set to go before its Board of Supervisors this fall, San Francisco may become the first city in the US to subject purchasing decisions to the precautionary principle.
That principle calls for precautionary measures against an activity suspected of harm — even in the face of scientific uncertainty.
“We are shifting the burden onto the bidder to show that products are not harmful to the environment,” said Jared Blumenfeld, head of the city’s Department of the Environment, who called the move a first in the US. “This forces an examination of environmentally superior alternatives, brings options to the table.”
The ordinance, which would cover the purchase of about $800 million annually in such products as paper, diesel buses, and toilet bowl cleaners, would allow an existing advisory commission to set specific environmental health goals, like reducing asthma rates, with requests for bids drafted accordingly. For any purchase, the city would outline the cleanest options, along with any chance to recycle or reduce consumption.
The more commonly used principle, risk assessment, would be jettisoned. “‘How much mercury should we allow in the environment?’” as Blumenfeld illustrated the choice, would be replaced by “‘Are there alternatives to mercury thermometers?’”

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