Keywords: precautionary principle, absolute liability, scientific uncertainty, environmental decision making, environmental impact, health impact, scientific certainty, toxic substances
The precautionary principle and absolute liability
Worldwide, the precautionary principle has been applied in various ways in the environmental decision-making process. Often the interpretation of the principle is based on absolute scientific certainty, cost-benefit analysis, or environmental equity. However, science cannot be absolute. Moreover, the resulting vagueness of the precautionary principle undermines the concept. To avoid these concerns, this paper proposes a two-stage interpretation of the precautionary principle. In the first stage, the scientific community has a rationale or educated idea that a certain substance might have serious and irreversible environmental or health consequences. Once this level of certainty is reached, those who stand to benefit from an activity should have the duty to prove that the activity will not cause undue harm. During the second stage, the alleged substance's guilt or non-toxicity must be established to a scientific certainty. If the substance is toxic, then the precautionary principle should mandate that absolute liability is the standard to be applied.