Press releases

Thursday 10 Jan 2002

EEA draws key lessons from history on using precaution in policy-making

Twelve key lessons for decision-making have emerged from a ground-breaking analysis by the European Environment Agency of cases - from the damaging of the ozone layer by CFC chemicals to the "mad cow" disease epidemic - where public policy was formulated against a background of scientific uncertainty or surprise developments, or where clear evidence of hazards to people and the environment was ignored.

Copenhagen, 10 January 2002
Twelve key lessons for decision-making have emerged from a ground-breaking
analysis by the European Environment Agency of cases - from the damaging of
the ozone layer by CFC chemicals to the "mad cow" disease epidemic - where
public policy was formulated against a background of scientific uncertainty
or surprise developments, or where clear evidence of hazards to people and
the environment was ignored.

A new EEA report published today, Late lessons from early warnings: the
precautionary principle 1896-2000, examines how the concept of precaution
has been applied - or not - by policy-makers over the past century when
addressing a broad range of hazards linked to public health and the
environment in Europe and North America.

The report should help to improve mutual understanding between Europe and
the United States on the use of the precautionary principle in
policy-making. The debate has been marked by disputes over the safety of
synthetic hormones in beef and of genetically modified plants and foods.

"Our central conclusion is that the very difficult task of maximising
innovation whilst minimising hazards to people and their environments could
be undertaken more successfully in future if the twelve 'late lessons' drawn
from the histories of the hazards studied in this report were heeded," said
Domingo Jiménez-Beltrán, EEA Executive Director.

The report's 14 case studies, contributed by experts in their respective
fields, provide many examples where inaction by regulators had costly and
unforeseen consequences for human health and the environment or where early
warnings, and even "loud and late" warnings, of problems were clearly
ignored.

The consequences range from the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people
from the asbestos cancer mesothelioma, to the over-exploitation and
subsequent collapse of fisheries in Canada, California and Scotland, with
devastating impacts on local communities.

The 12 "late lessons" drawn from the case studies include the following:

  • Be realistic about how materials will be used and disposed of in
    everyday life.
  • Don't allow regulatory authorities to be "captured" by vested
    interests.
  • Avoid allowing one or two materials to monopolise the market - as
    was the case with asbestos, CFCs and the group of versatile but harmful
    industrial chemicals known as PCBs - by developing diverse ways of meeting
    human needs.
  • When evaluating risks, ensure that not only all relevant specialist
    expertise is used but also "lay" and local knowledge.
  • Follow up early warnings of problems with long-term environmental
    and health monitoring.

Poul Harremoës, Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering at the
Technical University of Denmark and chair of the report's editorial team,
said:
"The use of the precautionary principle can bring benefits beyond the
reduction of health and environmental impacts, stimulating both more
innovation, via technological diversity and flexibility, and better science.

"The case studies show how harmful and costly misuse or neglect of the
precautionary principle can be," he continued. "But over-precaution can also
be expensive, in terms of lost opportunities for innovation and lost lines
of scientific enquiry.

"If more account is taken - scientifically, politically and economically -
of a richer body of information from more diverse sources, then society may
be considerably more successful at achieving a better balance between
innovations and their hazards in the future. The twelve 'late lessons'
distilled from the case studies could help to achieve this better balance."

Professor Harremoës added: "None of the lessons would themselves remove the
dilemmas of decision-making under situations of uncertainty and high stakes.
They cannot eradicate uncertainties or avoid the consequences of ignorance.
But they would at least increase the chances of anticipating costly impacts,
of achieving a better balance between the pros and cons of technological
innovations and of minimising the costs of unpleasant surprises."

The case studies cover the BSE or "mad cow" crisis; the use of synthetic
hormones and antimicrobial agents to promote growth in farm animals; the use
of the cancer-causing synthetic hormone DES to prevent miscarriages in
women; over-exploitation of fisheries in the northern hemisphere; the use of
medical radiation, asbestos, CFCs, and the chemicals benzene, MTBE (a
substitute for lead in petrol), tributyl tin (an antifoulant for boats and
ships) and PCBs; chemical contamination of North America's Great Lakes; and
air pollution from sulphur dioxide.

The report is an example of the kind of information that is needed to help
the European Union and EEA member countries frame and identify sound and
effective policies that protect the environment and contribute to
sustainable development. It also seeks to help clarify the definitions of
key terms, disagreement over which has added to the intrinsic difficulties
of applying the precautionary principle in practice.

Mr Jiménez-Beltrán said: "The precautionary principle is not just an issue
for the European Union: its potential impact on trade means that its
application can have global repercussions. The current dialogue between the
EU and the United States on the use and application of precaution is partly
affected by confusion about the meaning of terms used in the debate.

"This report should contribute to a greater and shared understanding about
past decisions on hazardous technologies and therefore, we hope, to improved
transatlantic agreement about future decisions. It may also help the
dialogue within both the EU and the United States, where there are healthy
debates about the pros and cons of applying the precautionary principle."

The 12 "late lessons" are:


  1. Acknowledge and respond to ignorance, as well as uncertainty and
    risk, in technology appraisal and public policy-making.

  2. Provide adequate long-term environmental and health monitoring and
    research into early warnings.

  3. Identify and work to reduce blind spots and gaps in scientific
    knowledge.

  4. - Identify and reduce interdisciplinary obstacles to learning.

  5. - Ensure that real world conditions are adequately accounted for in
    regulatory appraisal.

  6. - Systematically scrutinise the claimed justifications and benefits
    alongside the potential risks.

  7. - Evaluate a range of alternative options for meeting needs alongside
    the option under appraisal, and promote more robust, diverse and adaptable
    technologies so as to minimise the costs of surprises and maximise the
    benefits of innovation.

  8. - Ensure use of "lay" and local knowledge, as well as relevant
    specialist expertise in the appraisal.

  9. - Take full account of the assumptions and values of different social
    groups.

  10. - Maintain regulatory independence from interested parties while
    retaining an inclusive approach to information and opinion gathering.

  11. - Identify and reduce institutional obstacles to learning and action.

  12. - Avoid "paralysis by analysis" by acting to reduce potential harm
    when there are reasonable grounds for concern.

The report and its individual chapters can be downloaded from the EEA web
site at <http://reports.eea.eu.int/environmental_issue_report_2001_22/en>.
Printed copies are also available on request.

 

 

Notes for editors
The precautionary principle governs the use of foresight in decision-making
in situations characterised by uncertainty and ignorance and where both
regulatory action and inaction carry potentially large costs.
The principle is enshrined in the European Union treaty. The most
significant support for the principle in Europe has come from the European
Commission's Communication on the Precautionary Principle, the European
Parliament's resolution on the Communication and the Council of Ministers'
Nice resolution on the precautionary principle, all issued in 2000.

Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896-2000 is
published by the EEA as Environmental Issue report no. 22. It will also be
published in spring 2002 by Earthscan Publications Ltd. For more
information, see <http://www.earthscan.co.uk/home.htm>.

 

About the EEA
The European Environment Agency aims to support sustainable development and
to help achieve significant and measurable improvement in Europe's
environment through the provision of timely, targeted, relevant and reliable
information to policy making agents and the public. Established by the
European Union (EU) in 1990 by Council Regulation 1210/90 (subsequently
amended by Council Regulation 933/1999), the Agency is the hub of the
European environment information and observation network (EIONET), a network
of some 600 environmental bodies and institutes across Europe.

Located in Copenhagen and operational since 1994, the EEA is open to all
countries that share its objectives and are able to participate in its
activities. Since 1 January 2002 the Agency has 29 member countries. These
are the 15 EU Member States; Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein, which are
members of the European Economic Area; and 11 of the 13 countries in central
and eastern Europe and the Mediterranean area that are seeking accession to
the EU - Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia,
Lithuania, Malta, Romania, Slovenia and the Slovak Republic. Their
membership makes the EEA the first EU body to take in the candidate
countries. It is anticipated that the two remaining candidate countries,
Poland and Turkey, will ratify their membership agreements over the next few
months. This will take the Agency's membership to 31 countries.


- ends -

Tony Carritt
Media Relations Manager/Responsable des relations avec les médias
European Environment Agency/Agence européenne pour l'environnement

Tel (direct): +45 3336 7147
Mobile: +45 2368 3669
Fax: +45 3336 7198
Web site: http://www.eea.eu.int
Visit the EEA's press room at http://org.eea.eu.int/PR

Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Denmark

The EEA aims to support sustainable development and to help achieve
significant and measurable improvement in Europe's environment through the
provision of timely, targeted, relevant and reliable information to policy
making agents and the public.

Thursday 10 Jan 2002
All (1051)
2014 (3)
2013 (13)
2012 (7)
2011 (29)
2010 (34)
2009 (54)
2008 (48)
2007 (31)
2006 (31)
2005 (38)
2004 (44)
2003 (85)
2002 (104)
October (10)
August (13)
July (3)
June (11)
May (7)
April (4)
March (6)
January (11)
2001 (114)
2000 (71)
1999 (143)
1998 (119)
1997 (76)
1996 (7)
RSS