The Precautionary Principle and Unnecessary Precautionary Action

Steffen Foss Hansen

Studenteropgave: Speciale


Claims that a specific chemical, technology or activity is a false negative or a false positive are often made and used as an argument either for or against the application of the Precautionary Principle in the future. False positives could be defined as risks where actions were taken in the face of incomplete knowledge on the basis of a precautionary approach that later turned out to be unnecessary. The purpose of this study is to identify false positives and to analyze these to learn lessons from the past that can be valuable for future regulatory decision-making regarding human health and the environment. The environmental and health literature was examined for proclaimed “false positives” often said to be diverting scarce resources from real risks or even worse creating new more problematic risks. This review was narrowed down to false positives seen in the light of today’s knowledge and recognized uncertainty. Four cases were identified: the Southern Corn Leaf Blight, the Swine Flu affair, saccharin, and food irradiation in relation to consumer health. The identified cases were analysed to identify when and why actions were initially taken, when and why it was realized that the believed risk was false and what the overall socio-economic costs and benefits were. The study shows that the actual number of false positives is very limited and that a great deal of the cases often mentioned in the literature are not real “false positives”, but fall into a wide variety of different risk categories. Seen from a public health and environmental perspective, the false positives generally did not have great impact, either positive or negative. From a socio-economic perspective false positives did have an impact, mostly on the industry directly affected by regulatory action, but the overall impact was not always negative since it sparked innovation within industry, science and government. This leads to the conclusion that fear of false positives is not a reasonable argument against future application of the Precautionary Principle.

UddannelserTekSam - miljøplanlægning, (Bachelor/kandidatuddannelse) Kandidat
Udgivelsesdato1 jun. 2004
VejledereBørge Klemmensen