Rachel's Precaution Reporter #58
Wednesday, October 4, 2006

From: Rachel's Precaution Reporter #58 ...................[This story printer-friendly]
October 4, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Despite international agreements to protect the Great Lakes from industrial contamination, most of the fish in the Great Lakes are unfit for human consumption: "If these [hormone- disrupting] health endpoints were included in the [risk assessment] calculations, most Great Lakes fisheries would likely have to be closed with devastating effects on fishing communities." Clearly, more precaution is needed.]

[Editors' introduction: The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the U.S. and Canada is currently being re-examined through a public process of consultation. Here, a scientist knowledgable about Great Lakes water quality issues, who has asked to remain anonymous, writes about the precautionary principle as a way to preserve and restore the Great Lakes ecosystem.]

Traditional use of Precaution: As a Response to Failed Regulations

Much of the focus of the precautionary principle has been on pre- market testing of chemicals to ensure that they will not cause harm to humans or the environment when they are introduced into commerce in the future.

Over the past forty years, governments tend to have progressively abrogated their responsibilities for protecting the public from harms caused by particular chemicals.

Even when information was available about the harm that was being done to fish, wildlife and humans populations, those in authority were reluctant to prohibit activities involving the injurious chemicals.

With the breakdown of the system for effective regulation of chemicals already in commerce, the response within civil society was to demand a precautionary approach so that the 'safety' of chemicals would be documented before entry into commerce.

Another Use for Precaution: Dealing with Past Contamination

Releases of persistent toxic substances have caused extensive damage within the Great Lakes basin over the past century. In the 1960s, when civil society was expressing its outrage over many injustices including environmental health (Habermas, 1970; Adkin, 1998), the United States and Canadian governments responded with legislation and programs that included negotiation and signing of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

The International Joint Commission (created by a U.S.-Canada treaty in 1909 to regulate activity in the shared waters of the Great Lakes) was given special responsibilities including providing advice to the two governments on the injury to health and property from trans- boundary pollution.

There were many uncertainties in linking the releases of persistent toxic substances to the damage to human health and to fish and wildlife populations and the tendency was to postpone decision making to prohibit activities involving the substances while the uncertainties were reduced through scientific research. Meanwhile the damage continued.

The public response has been that, in the absence of timely and effective decision making, a precautionary approach was needed not only for chemicals likely to be manufactured or introduced into Great Lakes commerce in the future, but also to the exposures that occur today as a result of historic activities involving chemicals released in the past. Recently, the Great Lakes Science Advisory Board of the International Joint Commission (2006) reviewed the recent literature on the effects of exposures to persistent toxic substances.

About 4.7 million Americans eat Great Lakes fish and many are women of childbearing age (Tilden and others, 1997). Epidemiological research over the past twenty-five years has shown not only the effects on reproduction but also the particular susceptibility of the developing fetus to exposures to persistent toxic substances. The effects include changes in cognitive and behavioural development and in immune function mainly attributable to PCBs. Because these effects are mostly imperceptible in the individual (Beck, 1992) but devastating for the exposed population, it is essential to take a precautionary approach to the consumption of Great Lakes fish. Fish are resources and an important source of nutrition. The dilemma posed by the presence of these compounds in Great Lakes fish relates to both the economic damage to the valuable fisheries as well as the toxicological hazards they pose to humans while being nutritious food.

While the precautionary principle has not been incorporated into the current Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the Science Advisory Board (International Joint Commission, 2006) noted the relevance of the precautionary principle for protecting human health from exposures to persistent toxic substances and recommended a binational approach to the use of the precautionary principle in the management of chemicals in the Great Lakes basin.

Two Precautionary Strategies

There are two precautionary strategies that have been employed for reducing exposures to these hazards in the Great Lakes. The immediate response has been for governments to issue advisories to the public on the risks posed by the consumption of Great Lakes fish taken from particular localities and to restrict commercial fishing for certain species in designated places. As an expedient response to the immediate hazards, this measure, based on traditional risk assessment, has been successful at reducing exposures. But in the calculations, it has tended to ignore the subtle developmental effects caused by endocrine disruptors operating at concentrations sometimes far below the "safe" levels. If these health endpoints were included in the calculations, most Great Lakes fisheries would likely have to be closed with devastating effects on fishing communities.

The second approach has been to undertake remedial actions to "virtually eliminate" the contaminants, not only from discharges, but also from sediments. While many might not consider this to be precautionary given the extensive knowledge now available on the hazards posed by these compounds and the injury already documented, it is with an eye on safeguarding future generations that the decisions are being made. The scale of these precautionary measures is immense. On the US side, there are about 75 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment that need to be addressed of which 3.7 million cubic yards have so far been removed. Canada has not yet established a credible program for addressing the 44.7 million cubic yards of contaminated sediments and so far has only removed 0.045 million cubic yards.

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement is currently being reviewed through an extensive public consultative process with a possible view to amendment or renegotiation. During the operation of the Agreement over the past 35 years, concentrations of many persistent toxic substances have declined significantly and though many of the effects are still occurring, their incidence and severity have been reduced.

Increasing concentrations of brominated flame retardants and perfluoro octane sulphonates in fish and wildlife tissues during this period of time reveal the susceptibility of this immense ecosystem to the introduction of unregulated chemicals despite the agreement not to pollute the boundary waters to the injury of health or property.

Participants in the consultations have repeatedly expressed the need to incorporate the precautionary principle into the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement to protect human, fish and wildlife health not only from new chemicals, but also from exposures to persistent toxic substances released from past human activities.


Habermas, J (1970) Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science, and Politics (Beacon Press: Boston) 132 pp

Adkin, L (1998) Politics of Sustainable Development; Citizens, Unions and the Corporations (Black Rose Books: Montreal) 346 pp

International Joint Commission (2006) Priorities 2003 -- 2005: Priorities and Progress under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. http://www.canamglass.org/glwqa/files/prioritiesfullreport.pdf

Tilden, J, Hanrahan, LP, Anderson, H, Palit, C, Olson, J, MacKenzie, W and the Great Lakes Sport Fish Consortium (1997) 'Health advisories for consumers of Great Lakes sport fish: Is the message being received?' Environmental Health Perspectives 105(12):1360-1365

Beck, U (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (Sage: London) 260 pp


From: EurActiv ............................................[This story printer-friendly]
October 2, 2006


Related: Chemicals Policy review (REACH)

[Rachel's introduction: As U.S. activists try to decide what kind of comprehensive chemical reform they favor, one possible approach would be to copy the European proposal called REACH. This article looks back at the history of the REACH proposal which had its origins in a meeting of the European Council almost ten years ago.]


What's the problem with chemicals?

There is a general lack of knowledge regarding the 99% of chemicals (around 100,000 substances) that were placed on the market before 1981 ('existing substances'). This is because prior to that date, no stringent health and safety tests were needed to market chemicals. There are 3,000 so-called 'new substances' which had to go through a more stringent safety screening after 1981.

While some well-known chemicals, such as asbestos, are already banned, the Commission believes that the rising incidence of diseases such as cancer and leukaemia could be linked to chemicals. Blood tests in humans and animals have shown contamination by known toxic substances, raising questions as to how they enter the body and the extent of the damage that they could cause.

What will REACH do about it?

The regulation will put in place a single regulatory framework called REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of CHemicals) to cover both "existing" and "new" chemicals over an 11-year period.

Producers and importers of chemicals, not authorities as is currently the case, will need to show that substances are safe before they can be placed on the market (reversal of burden of proof). An agency will be set up to authorise or reject the applications. Safety screening and registration will take place in three stages, based on two broad sets of criteria:

** Volumes produced or imported per year: >1000 tonnes within 3 years; 100-1000 tonnes within 6 years; 1-100 tonnes: within 11 years, and;

** risk: substances that are carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction shall be assessed in priority within the first three years.

How many substances will be assessed?

The REACH proposal covers about 30,000 of the 100,000 'existing substances' placed on the market before 1981. This is because it leaves out substances that are imported or produced in less than one tonne per year. Under the previous system, 'new substances' had to go through safety screening if they were imported or produced in quantities of more than 10 kg per year.

Where does REACH come from?

Early work on REACH started in April 1998 at an informal meeting of EU environment ministers (Chester, UK) which recognised the need to review the current chemicals policy to test all substances on the market. Meetings with regulators, scientists, environmental NGOs and industry followed and in June 1999, the Council adopted conclusions on a future EU-chemicals strategy, asking for a review of the existing legal instruments.

Actual legislative work began in February 2001 with a Commission White Paper, outlining the main elements of the future strategy.

The paper reflected concerns about "the serious damage to human health" caused by certain chemicals. At the same time, it acknowledged the importance of the chemical industry as Europe's third largest manufacturing sector, employing 1.7 million people directly and generating a trade surplus of 41 billion euro for the EU. It was hoped that a new regulatory framework would further improve Europe's competitiveness on world markets by prompting innovation in safer chemicals.

In June 2001, EU ministers endorsed the twin concerns of health protection and competitiveness, saying that the precautionary principle should form the basis of the new policy.


The consultation phase that came prior to the proposal gave rise to what has often been described as the fiercest lobbying battle in EU history. From May to October 2003, the Commission received more than 6,000 contributions from industry associations, NGOs and governments. EU trade partners such as the USA and Japan also contributed and the Commission's proposal was finally tabled in October 2003 (EurActiv 28 Oct. 2003).

Most of the attention -- and lobbying -- focused on the estimated costs and benefits of the system. Initial assessments by the Commission were contested by industry, which warned that millions of jobs were at risk (EurActiv 16 Aug. 2003). Meanwhile, health organisations, environmental NGOs and trade unions pointed to the huge savings in health costs, describing industry tactics as "scaremongering".

The Commission's initial impact assessment estimated the overall costs to the chemicals industry and its downstream users at 2.3 billion euro over an 11-year period (or 0.05 per cent of the sector's annual turnover). But the bickering continued until a final study was published in April 2005, only to confirm the Commission's initial findings that it would not ruin the chemicals industry (EurActiv 27 April 2005).

The impact-assessment battle illustrated a fundamental trend in the REACH debate -- the issues have remained remarkably stable over time. When the Commission tabled its proposal in October 2003, it had already introduced a number of key changes to take account of the concerns raised during the consultation process (EurActiv 25 Sept. 2003). The most important ones concerned:

Scope of the system

Polymers were exempted from registration; the requirements for registering a substance within finished products ('substances in articles') have been softened.

Legal certainty

The "duty of care" provision for industry has been more clearly defined as companies feared they would be confronted with open-ended liability claims; the European Chemicals Agency will have a Board of Appeal.


For downstream users of chemicals, the obligation to produce safety assessments and reports was strictly limited; registration for chemicals produced or imported in the 1-10 tonne range was made simpler.

Powers of the Agency

The Agency will be the sole responsible with more and clearer responsibilities.


Stricter protection for sensitive and confidential business information was agreed; all information that is non-confidential will be available on request; the Agency will have more powers as to decisions on data sharing, R&D exemptions and protection of sensitive business confidentiality;


Companies will be encouraged to present substitution plans; this may influence decisions on authorisations.

Animal testing

REACH should not lead to an increase in animal testing.

Two years later, when the bill entered the European Parliament for its first reading, the issues had remained largely unchanged, with the debate focusing on the practical 'workability' of the system (EurActiv 17 Nov. 2005). When the Council voted the proposal in December, a number of key elements had been agreed (EurActiv 13 Dec. 2005):

** The substitution principle applies as a general rule, meaning that hazardous substances are to be replaced by safer alternatives whenever possible. However, a number of exceptions are introduced with the debate focusing on time-limtations to these, and;

** group applications: 'one substance, one registration' (OSOR) principle requires companies to submit safety data jointly in a consortia when registering similar substances with the agency.

** Registration is made simpler in the 1-10 tonne range and waiver option for safety tests is introduced in the 10-100 tonne range

Most of these issues will remain at second reading with the Parliament's Rapporteur, Guido Sacconi MEP, focusing his efforts on maintaining a strong substitution principle. But after so many years of discussion, most observers agree that there is little room left for manoeuvre.

"The positions of the Parliament and the Council are not that far apart", says Sacconi who believes a compromise can be found before the Plenary in November.

Latest & next steps:

4 October 2006: debate in Parliament environment committee

10 October 2006: vote in Parliament environment committee

14 November 2006: expected vote in Parliament plenary

4 December 2006: probable vote in Council (Competitiveness) and final approval of REACH


EU official documents

First reading

Council: Common position on REACH [Full text, 674 pages] (12 June 2006)

Parliament: Texts adopted: REACH (17 Nov. 2005)

Second reading

Parliament: Draft recommendation for second reading -- REACH (23 June 2006)

Related Documents

US mounts coalition to defeat EU chemical safety reform (REACH) (12 June 2006)

US states in push for EU-style chemicals law (10 May 2006)

US companies fear 'black list' effect of REACH (28 April 2006)

EU concludes on safety of chemical thought to cause child cancer (24 April 2006)

EU research to look into chemical exposure of babies (24 February 2006)

Copyright EurActiv 2000-2005


From: University of Wollongong ...........................[This story printer-friendly]
October 1, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: A student thesis considers precaution in relation to copper-chromium-arsenic (CCA) treated wood products. The thesis argues that precaution needs to be applied not only to future uses of toxic chemicals, but to problems remaining from previous uses.]

By Mary Scott

Now available: Mary Scott, The Precautionary Principle and Residual Products: CCA as a Case-Study, Honours thesis, University of Wollongong, 2006 [2 Mbyte PDF]

The goal of the Precautionary Principle is to safeguard the environment and humans through reducing unnecessary risks and minimizing harm likely to be generated by industry. A range of products were introduced before the advent of the Precautionary Principle. Some of these have since been banned from sale in some locales because of their potential risks.

It is imperative that the Precautionary Principle be applied to residual and waste products and not just future applications. Timber preserved with copper chrome arsenate (CCA) is a residual product requiring urgent attention. CCA-treated timber provides a good case study to demonstrate the need for extending the Precautionary Principle to residual products containing toxic substances.

[Click here to download the thesis (pdf -- 2 MB).]


Rachel's Precaution Reporter offers news, views and practical examples of the Precautionary Principle, or Foresight Principle, in action. The Precautionary Principle is a modern way of making decisions, to minimize harm. Rachel's Precaution Reporter tries to answer such questions as, Why do we need the precautionary principle? Who is using precaution? Who is opposing precaution?

We often include attacks on the precautionary principle because we believe it is essential for advocates of precaution to know what their adversaries are saying, just as abolitionists in 1830 needed to know the arguments used by slaveholders.

Rachel's Precaution Reporter is published as often as necessary to provide readers with up-to-date coverage of the subject.

As you come across stories that illustrate the precautionary principle -- or the need for the precautionary principle -- please Email them to us at rpr@rachel.org.

Peter Montague - peter@rachel.org
Tim Montague - tim@rachel.org


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