Better Safe than Sorry

This July, the city of San Francisco voted to adopt a purchasing policy based on the precautionary principle, which asks city officials to weigh health and environmental costs in their policy decisions. After months of debate, the Berkeley City Council followed suit October 14. Betty Olds, the only member to oppose the policy, felt the principle was too much, too soon. “As with everything, it’s a lot better to move slowly,” she said. Councilmember Linda Maio disagreed: “What we’re talking about is a cultural change. We have to help people understand why it is important to make that shift.”
Is the precautionary principle an enlightened model for decision-making, or, as some charge, a cumbersome review process destined to entangle even the smallest decision in red tape? Catherine Porter is the public policy coordinator for Oakland’s Women’s Cancer Resource Center and a prime mover behind Berkeley’s adoption of the code.
Jeffrey Blumenthal: Is the precautionary principle a symbolic shift in attitudes or will people actually feel its impact in their everyday lives?
Catherine Porter: I guess I don’t agree with the premise of the question, because if the precautionary principle were to shift attitudes it wouldn’t be just symbolic. If decision makers began looking at decisions differently and [saying] “We want to do this as safely as possible, and maybe we shouldn’t be doing it at all,” that would be huge. That would affect how we live in our communities and how governments form policy.
Are we going to see a decrease in asthma incidence? Are we going to see a decrease in cancer incidence? Is it going to result in fewer [cancer-causing] chemicals in the air, and fewer people in San Francisco getting cancer? If that’s how you quantify whether there has been an improvement, I think that would be pretty hard to establish, because the cause-and-effect of chronic illnesses is so hard to establish. But as more and more individuals adopt the precautionary approach, we are going to see, I believe, less carcinogens in the environment, less pollutants in the environment that for example, cause or exacerbate asthma.
Why do you think the US is so far behind Western Europe on this issue?
One stumbling block in the United States is corporate vested interests. Some industry people characterize the precautionary principle as essentially anti-science, and say that it’ll squelch innovation. But it will do just the opposite; it will encourage innovation because we need to come up with products that are safer. The current industries that are polluting, maybe they’re going to lose out, but there’s potentially this great big other new industry making cleaner products and services that stands to win in this.
What’s it like to be working for a change you may not even see in your lifetime?
It is heartening just to have a city council pass one of these resolutions. That in and of itself inspires us to continue. But it is often difficult to inspire people on the ground. Those of us working on the precautionary principle think a lot about how to make this real and dynamic and not just pie-in-the-sky. I come at it from a cancer perspective, and what I say is, this particular project is not going to make the difference of you and me getting cancer or not getting cancer or having a recurrence. But it takes many, many changes like this to [get to the point where] fewer people are getting cancer.
How do you respond to critics who say that the precautionary principle is impractical, that it’s impossible to eliminate risk?
What you cannot do is create a world where there is absolutely zero risk of harm in every step you take, obviously. But you can reduce the likelihood of harm. For instance, you can have a system where the city decides to use cleaner products that don’t have chemicals that are linked to cancer, products that have no or very little acute toxicity, products that don’t have the potential to create rashes, headaches, nausea. What the precautionary principle is saying is that we need be more thoughtful about our actions and our decision-making.
What does one have to prove now before a product or a practice is banned?
We treat many chemicals as safe until proven guilty even though there’s no evidence proving safety, and, in fact, there may be some evidence proving the possibility of harm. So we’re saying: “With some chemicals, we have some evidence of harm, and we have alternatives. So why not use the safer alternative?” If the proponent of that activity or that product wants us to use that product, then they’ve got to establish that it’s safe.
What happens next?
Berkeley is already working on green building, constructing buildings in a way that prevents indoor pollution. Other areas might be environmental education for parents and parents-to-be: alcohol, tobacco, not spraying pesticides around toddlers, lead. Worker safety…. We’re imagining that once we get through the initial stage, then we can start loosening up the brain to focus on the next steps.

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