Can the Precautionary Principle Protect Your Family from Toxic Chemicals?

The 'seventh generation principle' is the original precautionary principle. This practice from the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy of making decisions with the seventh generation in mind is what fuels our mission. We're hoping that TSCA reform based on the precautionary principle forces other companies to follow suit.

So what is the "precautionary principle" all about? Basically, if an action is suspected to cause harm to the public or to the environment, those taking the action must prove that it is not harmful. That means corporations or governments must take responsibility that their products and policies do not cause harm to people or to the environment. The principle implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm.

The phrase came about when scientists, philosophers, lawyers and environmental activists met at the Johnson Foundation's Wingspread Conference Center to develop guiding principles for evaluating decisions that affect human health and the environment. At the conclusion of the three-day conference, the diverse group issued a statement calling for government, corporations, communities and scientists to implement the "precautionary principle" in making decisions. They issued this statement:

  • The release and use of toxic substances, the exploitation of resources, and physical alterations of the environment have had substantial unintended consequences affecting human health and the environment. Some of these concerns are high rates of learning deficiencies, asthma, cancer, birth defects and species extinctions; along with global climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion and worldwide contamination with toxic substances and nuclear materials.
  • We believe existing environmental regulations and other decisions, particularly those based on risk assessment, have failed to protect adequately human health and the environment - the larger system of which humans are but a part.
  • We believe there is compelling evidence that damage to humans and the worldwide environment is of such magnitude and seriousness that new principles for conducting human activities are necessary.
  • While we realize that human activities may involve hazards, people must proceed more carefully than has been the case in recent history. Corporations, government entities, organizations, communities, scientists and other individuals must adopt a precautionary approach to all human endeavors.
  • When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.
  • In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.
  • The process of applying the precautionary principle must be open, informed, and democratic, and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.

It's been 16 years since these principles were proposed at the historic, 1998 Wingspread Conference. Yet in that time, little has been done to advance the idea, and we as a society are paying an incredible cost for not using the precautionary principle.

Take, for example, the results of a recent study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The test found almost 300 chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of newborns - many of which are believed to cause serious harm. But the fact is, no one knows for sure. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), passed in 1976, requires EPA to prove that there is harm before these chemicals can be regulated. Use of the precautionary principle would reverse the game, requiring industry to have sufficient evidence to prove a chemical is safe for its intended uses.

Right now, we have a chance to help make a change. Seventh Generation is asking its friends and supporters to join them in urging Congress to reform the way in which chemicals are regulated -- to help protect our families from harmful chemicals with suspected links to cancer, birth defects, asthma and more. Please help us by signing our petition now.