The EU’s extreme version of the “precautionary principle” could cost us our healthby Bjorn Lomborg / September 18, 2013 / Leave a comment
The precautionary principle used to work. It was set out at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, and stated that complete scientific evidence was not necessarily required in support of action on the most serious environmental threats. Unfortunately, since then, this well-intentioned principle has become a destructive tool, used to support bad policies.
Acting on incomplete information is what we do. If a child tries to cross a busy road for ice cream, we don’t wait for a complete model of all the traffic before intervening. We make a quick assessment, and send them down to the pedestrian crossing. But now, the EU has begun using the principle to claim that only things that can be proved not dangerous are allowed. You can’t prove “undangerous.” Even sending the kids down to the pedestrian crossing isn’t safe (there were over 800 pedestrian deaths at intersections in the US in 2010). With the new precautionary principle, crossing the street can’t be allowed. This runs counter to how we act and to how we weigh benefits, even rather trivial ones, against risks, even serious but unlikely ones.
The vamped-up precautionary principle suggests that people should only do what is entirely safe. This makes a great political sledgehammer—anything can be banned.
This is what is happening in the EU with the management of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). These are present in a large number of everyday items, such as food packaging, cosmetics and pesticides. Studies have suggested a possible connection between EDCs and the decline of sperm counts, hormonal changes in women and the increase in certain cancers. That is surely cause for caution. But the new precautionary principle demands that we drop any manmade chemical if we can’t prove it is safe—an impossible task.
While 1.3m people die each year from road accidents, we don’t outlaw traffic. We make roads safer with smart, cost-effective policies like zebra crossings and traffic lights. Likewise we need to weigh the risks and benefits of using chemicals. This is hard, becuse we’re conditioned to be afraid of manmade chemicals. Yet the levels of toxins in natural chemicals are often much higher. Your food has thousands to millions of times more natural than synthetic endocrine disrupting properties. Soy, which is added to more and more of our processed foods, makes up the vast majority of endocrine disruptors. But peas, peanuts and strawberries also contain natural endocrine disruptors. Fruit, on…