Principle

The first international formulation of the precautionary principle was at the First International Conference on the Protection of the North Sea in 1984. In this context, the conference focused particularly on emissions into the marine environment. And it restricted its attention to substances which are 'persistent, toxic, and liable to bioaccumulate'. The conference called for emissions of these kinds of substances to be reduced 'even where there is no scientific evidence to prove a causal link between emissions and effects'.

Although the original formulation of the precautionary principle was restricted to the marine environment, we can see that exactly the same problems of complexity and uncertainty, and the same difficulty in providing irrefutable causal links can apply to all environmental media. So it would certainly make sense to apply the precautionary principle to emissions of all potentially hazardous materials.

What do we mean by potentially hazardous materials? The first formulations of the precautionary principle identified substances which were persistent, toxic and liable to accumulate in biological organisms and food chains. The events of Minamata Bay illustrate that these three properties particularly increase the risk associated with disposal practices.

But many other kinds of materials can be hazardous in the environment. Some non-toxic materials can be converted to toxic materials after they have been released because of the action of sunlight or bacteria; or because they interact with other materials in the environment. Synthetic chemicals have proved extremely damaging even when the substance in question is not hazardous to humans. This is illustrated clearly by the case of CFCs. These chemicals were introduced in the 1940s and 1950s to replace other chemicals such as ammonia which were known to be hazardous to human health. CFCs are themselves non-toxic to humans. But because they are persistent they have reached the upper atmosphere in large quantities. As we now know, they contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer.

This leads us to suppose that certain non-toxic chemicals should also be the object of careful scrutiny, and perhaps be subject to precaution. In fact, even those materials for which there are well-known natural cycles can cause major environmental problems. To see this, we need only consider the case of carbon dioxide emissions from human activities. No more 'natural' chemical compound could be encountered than carbon dioxide. It is a normal product of animal respiration. It is essential as an input to the process of photosynthesis. And the cycling of carbon through respiration and photosynthesis is essential to maintaining the balance of our atmosphere and climate. Yet carbon dioxide is also released when fossil fuels are burned; and the prospect of global warming from increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels presents one of the most serious environmental problems with which we are faced today.

In fact, we should really say that there is a very wide spectrum of materials emitted from the industrial economy which pose potentially catastrophic and irreversible environmental threats. Some of these are highly toxic materials which do not even exist in nature. Others are naturally occurring materials for which well-known material cycles exist.

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