The Precautionary Principle Explained by

Sharon Koshar/Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition

The Precautionary Principle suggests moving forward with caution when there has been considerable scientific and other evidence that harm might occur. The unfortunate truth is that proving future harm can be virtually impossible, due to the constraints of living in a world of multiple exposures. Measuring environmental exposures, or effects that occur many years after exposure, is hard to do until the dead bodies are piled up. Sometimes even then such exposures are hard to analyze! But plenty of evidence often exists which suggests strongly that we've got something to worry about.

Obtaining absolute scientific certainty is a virtually impossible task. Thus we have to consider alternatives when we have evidence of potential harm, especially when it might be widescale in nature. Everyone knew for 40 years that smoking could cause lung cancer, but it's only within the past few years that the absolute proof was obtained. The same is true of the dangers of leaded gas, leaded paint, and many other hazards that were strongly implicated as public health risks more than 50 years ago, but which often lacked that final shred of absolute proof. Proponents of potentially harmful activities have often used that missing final shred as a way to continue doing business as usual...with disastrous results. The studies can contradict one another for years, but a hazard can often be signaled long before the final proof is in.

The Precautionary Principle asks that we take action not to stop the wheels of progress, but to use our foresight to look for the safest way to go forward.

Pure speculation is not a sound foundation for setting policy. This works both ways, actually: pure speculation should not be used in deciding to move forward with a new activity, nor should it be used in deciding to take action to prevent harm. The PP simply suggests examining all the evidence before making a decision, instead of using a lack of "absolute proof" to allow dangerous decisions to be made. Right now our regulations are not as protective of our health as they could be, because of limits in science and policy, and other pressures on decision-makers. Again and again it has been shown that safer, cleaner alternatives can benefit both our health and the environment, and the bottom line of companies.

I agree that education, BSE, regular exams and mammography are important. Yes! But I DON'T think they're the best precautions. In fact, they're not even precautions! They don't prevent breast cancer, they just detect it early. Unfortunately, they WON'T preserve and protect women's breast health; by the time these tools are useful, it's too late for health - there's already disease. And exams and mammograms miss some breast cancers. What the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition seeks to attain in implementing the Precautionary Principle - the reason we are behind this initiative 100% - is to prevent breast cancer from occurring in the first place! With only 5 -10% of breast cancers attributable to purely genetic factors, it's clear to many researchers that environmental exposures play a significant role.

There is nothing radical or hysterical about the people working on this project. These are intelligent, grounded, fair-minded folks. I have had the privilege of meeting some of the most prominent and brilliant scientists of our time, and hearing them speak to this issue has convinced me that what I know in my heart is true. For us to wage a real war on breast cancer, or any cancer, we must begin at the source or sources. The Precautionary Principle seeks to protect us not with unfounded speculation or political extremity, but with reasoned, thorough, honest discussion which takes into account many findings and concerns currently left out of the loop. Precaution requires both rigorous and honest science that acknowledges what is known, what is not known, and what can be known with existing tools. Our current regulatory process is not as protective as it could be, and is often manipulated by those who seek to maintain the status quo.

One important element of the PP is involving citizens like you and me in the decision-making about science and technology, including what we are willing to be exposed to. Isn't it time someone asked US what risks we're willing to take, and for what gain?

This project has the potential to make life a little bit - no! - a LOT safer and a lot fairer, and I want others to be as clear as possible about its intentions.

Sharon Koshar

Precautionary Principle Project Organizer, Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition P.O. Box 524 Northampton, MA 01060 413/586-7395

Two Resources for Information on Precautionary Principle

Thanks to

Nuclear, Chemical & Asbestos Wastes Make Cancer #1 KILLER

By Janette D. Sherman, MD 5/05

A Voice of Reason

April 2007 Canyon News

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