PANNA: Scientists Urge Precaution in Toxics Management


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Scientists Urge Precaution in Toxics Management
November 24, 2000

In series of papers published recently in the International Journal of Environmental Health (IJOEH), an international group of scientists has warned that governments must not wait for full scientific proof before acting to eliminate chemicals that they suspect to be harmful.

The authors, who include physicians and researchers from the U.S., Europe and Asia, urge that the so-called "precautionary principle" guide environmental policy.

The precautionary principle calls for preventive measures to be taken when evidence emerges that a chemical poses a threat of harm to the environment, wildlife, or humans -- even if exhaustive studies of cause and effect relationships are not available. This concept is certain to be a point of controversy at intergovernmental negotiations for a treaty on persistent organic pollutants (POPs), to be in Johannesburg, South Africa in December.

"We know enough now to justify moving aggressively in reducing exposures and eliminating releases of persistent organic pollutants," observed Dr. John Peterson Myers, director of the W. Alton Jones Foundation and co-author of a highly regarded and provocative book about chemical contamination, Our Stolen Future. "While science can decide the policy process, if we wait for scientific certainty before increasing protective measures, we risk undermining the health, fertility and well-being of millions of people."

A paper by Romeo Quijano, M.D. of the College of Medicine at the University of the Philippines offers an unsettling case history. Dr. Quijano recounts that in 1990, Philippine government officials noticed that the pesticide endosulfan was the most frequent cause of reported pesticide-related deaths. In 1991, a government review led to a decision to ban certain formulations of the chemical. The manufacturer (the German company Hoechst, now part of Aventis) responded with lawsuits to block the ban. Despite the evidence from the fields, the company argued the government had insufficient scientific proof to justify its actions. The government eventually prevailed, but only after a three-year legal battle -- during which time use of the pesticide continued.

"Science and corporations are inherently contradictory," said Dr. Quijano. "Developing countries have limited resources to characterize risk, or to reverse damage to health and the environment. It is far better to prevent pollution in the first place."

In his paper, Joseph Thornton, Ph.D., of Columbia University's Earth Institute, provides evidence that current approaches to regulation underestimate the "scale, complexity and diversity of the problems of chemical pollution." Among other changes, Dr. Thornton argues for a "zero discharge" policy with regard to toxic substances that persist in the environment and accumulate in living organisms. The goal of total elimination of POPs is being considered in the UNEP negotiations, but it is unclear how strong this mandate will be in the final treaty.

Dr. Thornton warns that the POPs treaty will be effective only if it adopts a preventive approach, focused on "converting industrial systems to eliminate hazardous classes of chemicals entirely."

"From tobacco to asbestos to Agent Orange, governments have been faced with explosive revelations that early warning signs had been ignored and that risk had been seriously underestimated," said Carl Smith, Vice President of the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education (FASE), and editor of the IJOEH series. "Rather than merely finding fault with this operating basis, these scientists have offered some guidelines that could prevent similar mistakes in the future."

To receive a copy of this issue of the International Journal of Environmental Health, send an email to Carl Smith, Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education, carl.smith@fasenet.org

Source: Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education, 4801 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90037.

PANUPS is a weekly email news service providing resource guides and reporting on pesticide issues that don't always get coverage by the mainstream media. It's produced by Pesticide Action Network North America, a non-profit and non-governmental organization working to advance sustainable alternatives to pesticides worldwide.

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