Late lessons from early warnings: science, precaution, innovation

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Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

With much scientific uncertainty about the real impact of new products and technologies, policy-makers face difficult decisions, particularly when they have to deal with powerful commercial interests and economic trade-offs. The back stories of some widely used innovations of the past, such as leaded petrol, mercury products, DBCP pesticide, vinyl chloride, DDT, tobacco, and fossil fuel energies are used to derive lessons for handling current and emerging innovations and issues, such as nicotinoid pesticides, BPA, mobile phones, nano products, GMOs, alien species, and ecosystems resilience. Both historical and current chapters provide unique insights into how the precautionary principle has been applied or ignored, and the consequences. The report concludes with ideas for maximising innovations and minimising harms.

Science and the precautionary principle — lessons for preventing harm
Societies may be considerably more successful at maximising the net benefits from innovation if they take more account — scientifically, politically and economically — of the rich body of information available from a greater range of diverse sources. The 'Late Lessons Project' illustrates how damaging and costly the misuse or neglect of the precautionary principle can be, using case studies and a synthesis of the lessons to be learned and applied to maximising innovations whilst minimising harms.

Lessons from a history of hazards
The EEA published Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896–2000 in 2001.

There have been many beneficial innovations. Others have been disastrous. In today's globalised world, ill-conceived innovations can have a huge impact on health and environment.

'Late Lessons' asked whether we could become better at assessing the pros and cons of innovations, and taking action early enough to prevent harm.

Twelve key lessons for better decision-making were drawn from cases where public policy was formulated against a background of scientific uncertainty and 'surprises' — and where clear evidence of hazards to people and the environment was often ignored.

The case studies addressed:

  • Fish stocks;
  • Medical radiation;
  • Benzene;
  • Asbestos;
  • PCBs;
  • Halocarbons and the ozone 'hole';
  • DES pregnancy pills;
  • Antibiotics as animal growth promoters;
  • Sulphur dioxide and acid rain;
  • MBTE in petrol;
  • Contamination of the Great Lakes;
  • TBT marine antifoulants and sex change in sea snails;
  • Hormones as growth promoters;
  • Mad cow disease.

Better science and decisions for the future?
The EEA will publish volume 2 of Late lessons from early warnings: science, precaution, innovation on 23 January 2013. It will assess the use of scientific evidence and the precautionary principle across a wide range of human health and ecosystem case studies. Unlike volume 1, the new report will also cover some current and emerging issues.

Chapters will address:

  • False positives;
  • Lead in petrol;
  • Perchlorethylene and drinking water;
  • Mercury pollution of Minamata Bay and beyond;
  • Beryllium exposure in the nuclear industry;
  • Environmental tobacco smoke;
  • Vinyl chloride;
  • DBCP pesticide and male infertility;
  • Bisphenol A and harm to children;
  • DDT;
  • Booster biocides: an alternative to TBT;
  • The pill and feminisation of fish;
  • Climate change;
  • Floods;
  • Nicotinoid pesticides and the French bee decline;
  • Ecosystems and resilience;
  • Nuclear accidents;
  • GM crops and agroecology;
  • Invasive alien species;
  • Mobile phone use and brain tumour risks;
  • Nanotechnology;
  • Economic costs of inaction;
  • Protection early warners and late victims;
  • Why did business ignore early warnings;
  • Science for precautionary decision-making;
  • The precautionary principle.

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