Published June 18, 2003
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted the
precautionary principle as city and county policy June 17,
2003, a stunning and unprecedented breakthrough in the
management of environmental matters in the U.S. The vote
carried 8 to 2.
The long political road to the June 17 vote began when San
Francisco mayor Willie Brown hired Jared Blumenfeld to head the
city's Department of the Environment. Under Blumenfeld's
guidance, San Francisco government spent more than 2 years
studying and debating how to integrate the precautionary
principle into city- and county-wide policy. It was Blumenfeld
who corraled the political resources to put precaution on the
agenda in San Francisco.
But the dream of a city guided by the precautionary principle
originated with a breast cancer activist -- Joan Reinhardt
Reiss of the Breast Cancer Fund (San Francisco). At least three
years ago, she phoned Carolyn Raffensperger of the Science and
Environmental Health Network (Ames, Iowa), the leading
proponent of precautionary thinking in the U.S. Reiss also
contacted attorney Sanford Lewis (Waverly, Mass.), who drafted
preliminary language for an ordinance. Seeds were planted.
Early on, Katie Silberman of the Center for Environmental
Health (Oakland) joined Reiss in the drive for precaution in
San Francisco. In 2001, Reiss and Silberman introduced
Raffensperger to Blumenfeld. Wheels began turning. Reiss and
Silberman were joined by Davis Baltz of Commonweal (Bolinas and
Oakland). Together they developed the Bay Area Precautionary
Principle Working Group.
Other key actors were Randall Hayes and Francesca Vietor.
Hayes, the founder of Rainforest Action Network, is now a
member of Commission on the Environment for the City and County
of San Francisco. He headed up an ad hoc committee on the
precautionary principle for the Commission. Vietor used to hold
the job now held by Blumenfeld, directing the San Francisco
Department of the Environment. She now works for Commonweal,
which is run by Michael Lerner and Sharyle Patton. Vietor used
her political skills and knowledge to keep things moving.
Gary Erickson, founder of Clif Bar (http://www.clifbar.com),
organized a business breakfast at the San Francisco Foundation
to catalyze business interest in precaution. It worked. Many
small businesses in San Francisco came to support the emerging
precautionary policy. It helped that Frank Ackerman and Rachel
Massey at Tufts University had written their report titled
"Prospering With Precaution," showing that precautionary
policies create jobs and are profitable for business. The
work of other precaution activists in Massachusetts -- notably
Lee Kettelson and Joel Tickner -- was instrumental as well.
While Jared Blumenfeld was working inside San Francisco
government to develop precautionary policies, the Bay Area
Working Group built a coalition of non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) to support and critique the language
developed by Blumenfeld and his colleagues. The San Francisco
White Paper on Precaution is one of the best statements of the
principle available today.
Both the NGOs and San Francisco government called upon the
Science and Environmental Health Network (http://www.sehn.org)
frequently for strategic thinking, language, and support. SEHN
staff Nancy Myers, Ted Schettler, and Carolyn Raffensperger put
in countless hours helping San Francisco achieve its goal.
But in the end it was a combined grass-roots victory. Some of
the NGOs involved included (in alphabetical order),
Bayview Hunters Point Community Advocates (San Francisco),
Breast Cancer Action (San Francisco), The Breast Cancer Fund
(San Francisco), Center for Environmental Health (Oakland),
Citizens for a Better Environment (CBE, San Francisco), Clean
Water Action (San Francisco), Commonweal (Bolinas and Oakland),
Consumer Action (San Francisco), Environmental Research
Foundation (New Brunswick, N.J.), Green Action (San Francisco),
Physicians for Social Responsibility (San Francisco and Los
Angeles chapters), Redefining Progress (Oakland), The San
Francisco Foundation, Science and Environmental Health Network
(Ames, Iowa), Urban Habitat (Oakland), and The Women's Cancer
Resource Center (Oakland).
As you read through this policy, ask yourself, would my local
work be easier if precaution were official policy in my
community? Why not campaign to make it so?
Text of the San Francisco Precautionary Principle Policy:
Chapter 1 Precautionary Principle Policy Statement
Sec. 100. FINDINGS.
The Board of Supervisors finds and declares that:
A. Every San Franciscan has an equal right to a healthy and
safe environment. This requires that our air, water, earth, and
food be of a sufficiently high standard that individuals and
communities can live healthy, fulfilling, and dignified lives.
The duty to enhance, protect and preserve San Francisco's
environment rests on the shoulders of government, residents,
citizen groups and businesses alike.
B. Historically, environmentally harmful activities have only
been stopped after they have manifested extreme environmental
degradation or exposed people to harm. In the case of DDT,
lead, and asbestos, for instance, regulatory action took place
only after disaster had struck. The delay between first
knowledge of harm and appropriate action to deal with it can be
measured in human lives cut short.
C. San Francisco is a leader in making choices based on the
least environmentally harmful alternatives, thereby challenging
traditional assumptions about risk management. Numerous City
ordinances including: the Integrated Pest Management Ordinance,
the Resource Efficient Building Ordinance, the Healthy Air
Ordinance, the Resource Conservation Ordinance, and the
Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Ordinance apply a
precautionary approach to specific City purchases and
activities. Internationally, this model is called the
D. As the City consolidates existing environmental laws into a
single Environment Code, and builds a framework for new
legislation, the City sees the Precautionary Principle approach
as its policy framework to develop laws for a healthier and
more just San Francisco. By doing so, the City will create and
maintain a healthy, viable Bay Area environment for current and
future generations, and will become a model of sustainability.
E. Science and technology are creating new solutions to prevent
or mitigate environmental problems. However, science is also
creating new compounds and chemicals that are already finding
their way into mother's milk and causing other new problems.
New legislation may be required to address these situations,
and the Precautionary Principle is intended as a tool to help
promote environmentally healthy alternatives while weeding out
the negative and often unintended consequences of new
F. A central element of the precautionary approach is the
careful assessment of available alternatives using the best
available science. An alternatives assessment examines a broad
range of options in order to present the public with different
effects of different options considering short-term versus
long-term effects or costs, and evaluating and comparing the
adverse or potentially adverse effects of each option, noting
options with fewer potential hazards. This process allows
fundamental questions to be asked: "Is this potentially
hazardous activity necessary?" "What less hazardous options are
available?" and "How little damage is possible?"
G. The alternatives assessment is also a public process
because, locally or internationally, the public bears the
ecological and health consequences of environmental decisions.
A government's course of action is necessarily enriched by
broadly based public participation when a full range of
alternatives is considered based on input from diverse
individuals and groups. The public should be able to determine
the range of alternatives examined and suggest specific
reasonable alternatives, as well as their short- and long-term
benefits and drawbacks.
H. This form of open decision-making is in line with San
Francisco's historic Sunshine Act, which allows citizens to
have full view of the legislative process. One of the goals of
the Precautionary Principle is to include citizens as equal
partners in decisions affecting their environment.
I. San Francisco looks forward to the time when the City's
power is generated from renewable sources, when all our waste
is recycled, when our vehicles produce only potable water as
emissions, when the Bay is free from toxins, and the oceans are
free from pollutants. The Precautionary Principle provides a
means to help us attain these goals as we evaluate future laws
and policies in such areas as transportation, construction,
land use, planning, water, energy, health care, recreation,
purchasing, and public expenditure.
J. Transforming our society to realize these goals and
achieving a society living respectfully within the bounds of
nature will take a behavioral as well as technological
revolution. The Precautionary approach to decision-making will
help San Francisco speed this process of change by moving
beyond finding cures for environmental ills to preventing the
ills before they can do harm.
Sec. 101. THE SAN FRANCISCO PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE.
The following shall constitute the City and County of San
Francisco's Precautionary Principle policy. All officers,
boards, commissions, and departments of the City and County
shall implement the Precautionary Principle in conducting the
City and County's affairs:
The Precautionary Principle requires a thorough exploration and
a careful analysis of a wide range of alternatives. Using the
best available science, the Precautionary Principle requires
the selection of the alternative that presents the least
potential threat to human health and the City's natural
systems. Public participation and an open and transparent
decision making process are critical to finding and selecting
Where threats of serious or irreversible damage to people or
nature exist, lack of full scientific certainty about cause and
effect shall not be viewed as sufficient reason for the City to
postpone measures to prevent the degradation of the environment
or protect the health of its citizens. Any gaps in scientific
data uncovered by the examination of alternatives will provide
a guidepost for future research, but will not prevent
protective action being taken by the City. As new scientific
data become available, the City will review its decisions and
make adjustments when warranted.
Where there are reasonable grounds for concern, the
precautionary approach to decision-making is meant to help
reduce harm by triggering a process to select the least
potential threat. The essential elements of the Precautionary
Principle approach to decision-making include:
1. Anticipatory Action: There is a duty to take anticipatory
action to prevent harm. government, business, and community
groups, as well as the general public, share this
2. Right to Know: The community has a right to know complete
and accurate information on potential human health and
environmental impacts associated with the selection of
products, services, operations or plans. The burden to supply
this information lies with the proponent, not with the general
3. Alternatives Assessment: An obligation exists to examine a
full range of alternatives and select the alternative with the
least potential impact on human health and the environment
including the alternative of doing nothing.
4. Full Cost Accounting: When evaluating potential
alternatives, there is a duty to consider all the costs,
including raw materials, manufacturing, transportation, use,
cleanup, eventual disposal, and health costs even if such costs
are not reflected in the initial price. Short- and long-term
time thresholds should be considered when making decisions.
5. Participatory Decision Process: Decisions applying the
Precautionary Principle must be transparent, participatory, and
informed by the best available information.
Sec.102. THREE YEAR REVIEW.
No later than three years from the effective date of this
ordinance, and after a public hearing, the Commission on the
Environment shall submit a report to the Board of Supervisors
on the effectiveness of the Precautionary Principle policy.
Sec. 103. LIST OF ALL ENVIRONMENTAL ORDINANCES AND RESOLUTIONS.
The Director of the Department of the Environment shall produce
and maintain a list of all City and County of San Francisco
ordinances and resolutions which affect or relate to the
environment and shall post this list on the Department of the
Sec. 104. CITY UNDERTAKING LIMITED TO PROMOTION OF GENERAL
The Board of Supervisors encourages all City employees and
officials to take the precautionary principle into
consideration and evaluate alternatives when taking actions
that could impact health and the environment, especially where
those actions could pose threats of serious harm or
irreversible damage. This ordinance does not impose specific
duties upon any City employee or official to take specific
actions. In adopting and undertaking the enforcement of this
ordinance, the City and County of San Francisco is assuming an
undertaking only to promote the general welfare. It is not
assuming, nor is it imposing on its officers and employees, an
obligation for breach of which it is liable in money damages to
any person who claims that such breach proximately caused
injury nor may this ordinance provide any basis for any other
judicial relief including, but not limited to a writ of
mandamus or an injunction.
 "White Paper - The Precautionary Principle and the City
and County of San Francisco" (March, 2003). See