3. The Precautionary Principle: Prohibition of New Carcinogenic Products and Untested New Technologies
Under the terms of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to life and its corollary right to health are the first and most important of all fundamental rights recognised by many international conventions. Thus, implementary legislation is needed to mandate that considerations of life and health take absolute precedence over economics and trade.
The first line of defence against risks from avoidable carcinogenic and otherwise toxic exposures is an absolute prohibition of further increasing the burden of current exposures due to the authorisation of new candidate carcinogenic products and processes. Such a prohibition is based on the obvious Precautionary Principle that preventing new risks and that zero risk policies are essential for public and environment protection. As such, this Principle is particularly relevant to genetically engineered food for which industry claims of safety are based on 'trust us' assurances, rather than published scientific data. These claims are further invalidated by the extensive scientific evidence on the veterinary and public health hazards, particularly increased risks of breast, colon, and prostate cancers, from consumption of genetically engineered, rBGH/BST, milk (Epstein, 2001).
The Precautionary Principle was initially invoked by the EU in 1980 with regard to chlorofluorohydrocarbons, and again more recently by the German government, in 1994 at the Second North Sea Conference in relation to marine dumping of toxic wastes (Thorpe, 1999). Such policies are clearly preferable to deliberately accepting risks and then attempting to 'manage' them by reducing exposures to levels claimed 'acceptable' by self-interested industry or complicit regulatory agencies. Even recognising the sovereign rights of each nation to set its own levels of sanitary protection, zero risk policies must therefore constitute the standard principle and not the rare exception, as is current practice. In this connection, it may be noted that President Jacques Chirac, at a 1998 meeting of the World Conservation Union, proposed increasing the powers of the United Nations Environment Program to avoid sovereignty disputes that hamper the global fight against pollution. President Chirac warned that countries around the world were holding on to an outdated idea of sovereignty, while environmental pollution ignored national borders.
The Precautionary Principle would thus mandate the categorical responsibility of industry to provide unequivocal evidence on the safety of any new candidate product and process, thereby ensuring that they do not pose potential or recognised human or environmental risks. This principle further absolves citizens and regulatory agencies from the heavy burden for proving risks in response to industry challenges, and allows the banning of suspect products in circumstances of scientific uncertainty. The raw data on the basis of which industry claims of safety are based, apart from their interpretation, must be fully disclosed and evaluated at industry's expense by an independent agency with qualified representation of non-governmental organisations (NGO's) and their scientific consultants. This is essential to exclude bias or manipulation, for which there is a well documented and decades-old track record in a wide range of petrochemical and other industries (Epstein, 1978). A recent illustrative example is afforded by the review of 161 studies in the National Library of Medicine files on four heavily regulated industrial chemicals - formaldehyde, perchloroethylene, atrazine and alachlor. While only 14 per cent of industry studies reported toxic or carcinogenic effects, such effects were disclosed in 71 per cent of independent studies (Fagin and Lavelle, 1996). The recent announcement by the US Chemical Manufacturers Association of a $1 billion new safety testing program merits scepticism rather than reassurance. This is further compounded by the fact that the program is headed up by Dr. Roger McLennan, who has strained over the last decade, behind a façade of scientific objectivity, to disprove the overwhelming evidence on the cancer risks of diesel exhaust. Prior to that, McLennan worked for the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology whose major function was to challenge or attempt to explain away evidence on the carcinogenicity of profitable industrial chemicals.
In 1997, the Swedish Chemicals Policy Committee, established by the Swedish Government in May, 1996, published a revolutionary document entitled 'Towards A Sustainable Chemicals Policy'. In their official report to the Government, the Committee embraced the fullest implementation of the Precautionary Principle ever proposed for policies regarding industrial chemicals. Prime Minister Göran Persson is expected to present a version of these new policies in the spring of 2001 to Parliament which is expected to approve them. These policies will shift the burden of proof of safety away from the public to industry. Industry will have to produce detailed evidence that all new chemicals proposed for use pose no carcinogenic, mutagenic or endocrine disruptive adverse public health effects and environmental impacts, including persistence and bioaccumulation. The new law will also ban persistent organic pollutants (POPS) and other persistent chemicals such as lead, and require the phasing out of chlorinated paraffins, such as plasticisers and flame retardants. Swedish companies will have five years to test the estimated 2,500 chemicals that they use in quantities over 1,000 tons per year for such effects. By 2010, chemicals used in less amounts will also have to be tested.