The ‘Precautionary Principle’ in Action…Or is it Inaction?

As noted below, H.R. 4040, the now-passed consumer product regulation and litigation bill, bans three classes of phthalates “temporarily” until scientific studies prove these plastic softeners are safe to use. A preemptive ban represents the “precautionary principle” in action, preventing any use of a substance until it is demonstrated to pose no risk whatsoever.

This regulatory principle (which is used in the European Union) is an effective weapon when wielded by luddites, ideological scaredycats, anti-consumerists and friends of the tort bar against anything that offends their sensitivities. After all, you can never absolutely prove a negative.

Company: “We’re glad to introduce our new Product A, with X-Appeal! After years of extensive testing and rigorous federal regulatory review, its approval is a win-win for everyone. This product cuts costs to consumers by 50 percent, lasts twice as long, eliminates previously challenged ingredients, and is fun, too!”

Company Critic: “You don’t care about children. You just care about money. Our studies — well, it’s more like an opinion survey, but a scientific one — show a substantial risk when the substance is injested daily in excess of 500 grams. We’re calling for a consumer boycott.”

But so much for reductive scenarios. In the real world…

Columnist Dan Gardner of The Ottawa Citizen reports that Toronto public health officials have warned parents to minimize their children’s time spent on cellphones. Dr. Ronald Herberman, the director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, sent staff a memo urging children and adults to reduce their use of cellphones. Similar warnings have been made in Europe. Serious stuff, right? From “The precautionary principle“:

“Overall,” reports the U.S. National Cancer Institute, “research has not consistently demonstrated a link between cellular telephone use and cancer or any other adverse health effect.” A spokesman told the National Post that: “Health Canada sees no scientific reason to consider the use of cellphones as unsafe.”

And because the types of cancer allegedly caused by cellphones are very rare, any risk — if there is one — “is probably very small,” adds the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

These conclusions aren’t actually disputed by the authorities warning against cellphone use. What they argue instead is — however much nobler the intentions — almost the mirror image of the tobacco industry’s doubt campaign.

There is some evidence that cellphones might cause harm, they say. And there are large gaps in the research. And that’s enough to act.

“At the heart of my concern,” Dr. Herberman told The Associated Press, “is that we shouldn’t wait for a definitive study to come out, but err on the side of being safe rather than sorry later.”

Yes, it’s the “precautionary principle” again.

So, let’s panic parents, attack a key technology, and, just possibly, gin up enough public anxiety so a class-action suit will be easier to generate…because of the possibility of a chance of a risk, maybe.

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