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The precautionary principle and epidemiology: a contradictio in terminis?
  1. A Tukker
  1. TNO Institute of Strategy, Technology and Policy, Postbus 6030, 2600 JA Delft, the Netherlands
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr A Tukker;

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By its nature, epidemiological science has only a limited ability to judge the need for preventative action, which is a core element of the precautionary principle

The precautionary principle is gaining more and more ground as a guideline in environmental policy. Quantitative risk assessment no longer seems sufficient. In point of fact, historical analysis of several debates showed me that different societal groups structurally use different “paradigms”, “world views”, or “frames” to evaluate threats of man-made substances.1,2 Briefly, the two most contrasting views are*:

  • Adherents of what I termed the risk assessment frame believe that knowledge is adequate, that emission control will work, and that nature is quite resilient. Hence, they fully accept a management model where emission-effect calculations are used to assess a possible danger, and in which emission reductions are an adequate response to avoid exceeding a danger threshold (see for example, CEFIC3).

  • Adherents of the precautionary frame dispute that there is sufficient knowledge to be able to rely on this approach in the first place. Hence, they judge substances primarily on indicators reflecting factors like their inherent safety, the possibility that we are ignorant of possible effects, and the reversibility of contamination (which would allow wrong judgements to be corrected). Materials that can be produced safely without complex emission control, and for which waste management is easy, have their preference (see for example, Chemicals Policy Committee4, Stringer and colleagues5, and Thornton6).

Unfortunately, the debate between these groups often develops into a “dialogue of the deaf”. Parties on both sides simply caricature each other’s position: precaution would lead to a standstill of all innovation, it is claimed, and risk assessment neglects ignorance. This really is a pity as risk assessment and precaution are not mutually exclusive. …

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  • * There is also an intermediate “strict control” frame that deals with ignorance by imposing precautionary strict control measures (compared with preventive phase out).

  • Although one can express reservations about risk assessment in its present form. By 1998 at least four studies had shown that even for the 3000 high production volume chemicals (let alone the tens of thousands of other man-made chemicals) the basic data for the Screening Information Data Set were publicly available in only 10% of cases. This, of course, is at odds with the impression that is often given that a risk assessment is based on “hard facts”.

  • O’Riordan and Cameron (page 18)12 also mention the promotion of the cause of intrinsic natural rights (that is, an ethical point) and paying for past ecological debt (known heavy polluters should take more precautions than others). The Wingspread version of the principle is one of the few that poses demands on the decision making process like openness, inclusion of affected parties, and examination of alternatives.

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