Dealing with uncertainty – how can the precautionary principle help protect the future of our children?

Working document (EUR/04/5046267/11, 28 April 2004) prepared by WHO Secretariat for the Fourth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health, Budapest, June 2004

“We will develop initiatives in our countries to give greater emphasis in all relevant programmes to the need to prevent the exposure of children to environmental threats … We request the European Environment and Health Committee to identify methods and mechanisms to: promote and encourage public health measures in areas of emerging concern about environmental impacts on children’s health, on the basis of the precautionary principle.”

London Declaration on Action in Partnership (paragraph 50d), adopted at the Third Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health (London, 16-18 June 1999)

 The context of precautionary action to protect children

6. The precautionary principle is a tool for policy- and decision-making designed to ensure that people or entities bear political responsibility for taking action to prevent damage to health and ecosystems in the face of uncertain scientific information about health and ecosystem A common definition of the principle is to be found in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development of 1992: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost- effective measures to prevent environmental degradation”. Based on the European Environment Agency’s work and other developments in thinking about the precautionary principle, a broader, more proactive definition of precaution helps clarify its application to children’s health and sustainable development: the precautionary principle provides a framework, procedures and policy tools for public policy actions in situations of scientific
complexity, uncertainty and ignorance, where there may be a need to act before there is strong proof of harm in order to avoid, or reduce, potentially serious or irreversible threats to health or the environment, using an appropriate level of scientific evidence, and taking into account the likely benefits and drawbacks of action and inaction.

7. There are many well established environmental risks, such as unsafe drinking-water, indoor and outdoor air pollution and inadequate sanitation, which are at present arguably among the most serious risks to public health. It is important that public health interventions are strengthened to prevent them. However, there are other, often highly uncertain and complex risks associated with industrialization, which affect society at large and children in particular, such as exposure to dangerous chemicals, radiation, hazardous waste and industrial pollutants through food, water, air and direct exposure from everyday products. These threats can result in effects that take place long after exposure, making the establishment of causal links all the more difficult. Exposures to these agents can result in effects that are irreversible or take many generations to remediate and are costly to health and the environment. Limitations in the ability to characterize causal relationships are occasionally misinterpreted as evidence of safety. Thus, the need for more accurate scientific information has sometimes been used as a reason for inaction. The combination of rigid policy structures requiring strong evidence of risk, social attitudes and interference by vested interests often result in policy-makers having to wait unreasonable lengths of time before they can commit themselves to preventive action. The past cases of lead,
tobacco, asbestos and many other agents provide ample evidence of the high costs associated with waiting for convincing proof of harm. It is equally important that inadequate application of the precautionary principle should not prevent or preclude action producing important benefits for society.

8. Protecting children and future generations (as well as other vulnerable subpopulations) from environmental health risks is a compelling reason for developing precautionary approaches that are rational, consistent with available scientific information, and mindful of society’s needs and Application of the precautionary principle is particularly appropriate for the protection of children’s health because:

  • the science underlying the impacts of environmental stressors on children (from the stage of the fetus to the age of 18) is more complex, less researched and less understood than that of such impacts on adults;
  • the likelihood of serious harm to children from such impacts can be greater than for adults because of their different and changing stages of biological development, their behaviour and their greater exposure in relation to body weight;
  • children are involuntarily exposed to a greater proportion of the risks caused by society’s activities than adults, yet they have less power to avoid them;
  • children benefit proportionally less than adults from society’s risk-generating activities, such as employment, car driving, many consumer products, etc;
  • the risks and the benefits of avoided risks have more time to impact on children and society than on adults;
  • many of today’s serious environmental threats, such as water shortages, climate change, developmental and reproductive effects of toxic substances, endocrine disruption and biodiversity loss, may impinge proportionately more on children and their children than on this generation of adults.

9. The concept of precaution is premised on the principle of protecting society from the adverse consequences of erroneous decisions. Such unintended consequences often affect the most vulnerable groups in the population, and particularly those who do not have the power to change their environments. Hence the special relevance of the precautionary principle for children and future generations. By applying precautionary approaches to children and future generations, we are also contributing to decisions which ensure that all the population is more effectively protected. An approach designed to stimulate more precautionary decisions, with the aim of protecting the health of children and future generations and achieving sustainable development, is particularly important given the growing interdependence of global economies and long-term global threats, such as climate change, caused by industrial and human activities.

Download full document here.

Edited by: Marco Martuzzi and Joel A. Tickner – World Health Organization (Europe) – 2004

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