The process of applying the precautionary principle is open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It also involves an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.
The precautionary principle requires that decision-makers take into account not just the likelihood of a hypothesis being wrong (the degree of uncertainty) but also the nature and scale of the consequences if it is wrong. Some risks are unacceptable not because they have a high probability of occurring but because the consequences if they do occur are so severe. In view of this, the possibility of irreversible or persistent effects (as with persistent organic pollutants) calls for a different approach than in situations where transient effects are involved.
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.
In 1998, a gathering of 32 scientists, philosophers, lawyers and environmental activists, reached agreement on the necessity of the Precautionary Principle and called for government, corporations, communities and scientists to implement the "precautionary principle" in making decisions in the following statement:
Article 5(a) of the [Draft Protocol on Water and Health] (1999) to the [Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes] (1992), requires parties to be guided by: The precautionary principle, by virtue of which action to prevent, control or reduce water-related disease shall not be postponed on the ground that scientific research has not fully proved a causal link between the factor at which such action is aimed, on the one hand, and the potential contribution of that factor to the prevalence of water-related disease and/or transboundary impacts, on the other hand.
The [Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety] to the [Convention on Biological Diversity] affirms several times the precautionary approach and the appropriateness of taking protective action where there is a "lack of scientific certainty due to insufficient relevant scientific information and knowledge regarding the extent of the potential adverse effects..."
In the European study [Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896-2000], which 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 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 scrutinize 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 maximize 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.
2. There are degrees of uncertainty in any risk assessment. This uncertainty makes it imperative to apply the precautionary principle, taking into account the needs of society as a whole. Historically, much damage to health and/or the environment could have been averted through more stringent application of the precautionary principle. This applies both to risks posed by unplanned non-routine events (e.g. chemical or nuclear accidents) and to risks posed by routine or ongoing exposure to factors in the environment (e.g. ultraviolet radiation, lead, organophosphates, tobacco smoke). The precautionary principle should be the determining factor before introducing into the environment pollutants that can have a damaging effect on people's health.
2. The precautionary principle has a number of problems. First, it always assumes worst-case scenarios. Second, it distracts consumers and policy makers alike from the known and proven threats to human health. Third, it overlooks the possibility that real public health risks can be associated with eliminating miniscule, hypothetical risks. As an ancient philosopher said, "It is a serious disease to worry over what has not occurred."< 3. The precautionary principle plays well to the crowd, by placing the environmental advocate on the side of the citizenry: "I care about your health, and I propose an intervention that will protect you." And it allows environmentalists to portray those disagreeing with them as indifferent, or even hostile, to the public health and perhaps motivated by a desire to profit from whatever product or process is held to be risky.
4. The precautionary principle itself can be hazardous to our health. It is well known that the health of citizens is consistently correlated with their countries' standard of living. Dismantling our industrially-based high standard of living will diminish our standard of living and lead to poorer, not better, overall health.
5. The PP is based on the false assumption that little harm comes from delaying the introduction of new products and technologies. The principle exaggerate the potential drawbacks of new products and underestimates their benefits. The decision-making process it dictates is intentionally weighted against new technologies even after they have been cautiously examined.
6. The PP purports to be a useful method for decision-making in situations of uncertainty. In practice serves as an excuse for imposing arbitrary restrictions on new technology.