Showing Precaution about the Precautionary Principle

By April 15, 2009Regulations

Another good report on NRP’s Morning Edition today from Jon Hamilton on the chemical used in some consumer plastic products, bisphenol A (BPA), and regulatory practices and philosophy. From “Is ‘Better Safe Than Sorry’ Reason Enough For Law?“:

The precautionary principle dates back to at least the 1930s, says Jonathan Wiener, a professor of law, environmental policy and public policy at Duke University. He says there are at least three basic forms of the principle, though one scholar found 19 variations.

Weaker versions of the principle say it’s OK to take precautions against a threat to health or the environment even if it’s not clear that the threat has caused any harm. Stronger versions say it’s essential to take precautionary action.

Extreme Interpretations

And then there’s the variation that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) used last month when she introduced her bill to restrict BPA.

“If you do not know for certain the chemical is benign, it should not be used,” Feinstein said.

Even advocates for restricting BPA acknowledge that’s an impossible standard to meet. The NPR reporter Hamilton also includes an important fact some stories (like this 2008 NPR story) leave out, that the European Union “hasn’t acted against BPA even though it has a law requiring it to follow the precautionary principle.”

Today’s story follows another fairly reported piece on BPA on April 1 by Hamilton, “Public Concern, Not Science, Prompts Plastics Ban.” The only missing element from both pieces is an acknowledgement that there are major costs associated with eliminating a particular chemical or substance from the production process, costs ultimately borne by the consumer.

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