Better Safe than Sorry

You know how those sayings go:  "better safe than sorry," "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," "a stitch in time saves nine."  They may be trite, but you know they're true.  Parents who guard their children against everyday mishaps are demonstrating the "better safe than sorry" approach.
Katie with her sons, Lincoln and Haven
Photo courtesy:  Devon Hill

In the early 90s, public policy experts borrowed from these timeless bits of wisdom and translated the German term vorsorgeprinzip that means forecaring or  foresight into what's called the precautionary principle.

I recently asked environmental law attorney Katie Silberman, proud mother of two, to explain how the precautionary principle applies to families.  She answered, "I think that all parents know the precautionary principle inherently, 'If I see some action or substance that might harm my kid or might not,' that's an easy call for a mom to make.  You're always going to choose something that you know is not harmful.  It's not worth taking a risk with your own child.  It's not worth taking a risk with anyone's child."

The most commonly accepted approach in United States government and industry is risk assessment, which assumes an acceptable level of harm to our families from any sort of product or process.  In contrast, the precautionary principle shifts the burden of proof from consumers to producers who must show enough foresight to prevent harm.  Other countries, such as those in Europe, use the principle to set higher standards for keeping toxins out of consumer products, while US standards lag behind.

Silberman's work was instrumental in helping the city of San Francisco pass the nation's first precautionary principle ordinance in 2003.  She now works as Associate Director at the Science and Environmental Health Network, part of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition.  Efforts to put common sense limits on toxic chemicals with the Safe Chemicals Act are based on the precautionary principle.  Silberman explained, "When there's reason to believe there's an activity that might be harming our health, it's time to act.  We can't wait until bodies are piling up until we take action.  We need to take action to protect our health."

Silberman may be a lawyer, but she's impassioned by her roles as a wife and mother, "Personally and professionally I'm really concerned about the effects of toxic chemicals on our bodies.  We know that rates of diseases that are linked to environmental exposures are going up -- like childhood asthma, childhood cancer, learning disabilities, autism, infertility and so many things that so many of us are dealing with and so many families we know are dealing with. We know that rates of those diseases are rising in the past few decades in really alarming ways; and we also know that the use of toxic chemicals has been rising in recent decades as well."

Silberman pointed out that the President's Cancer Panel appointed by President George W. Bush called for using the precautionary principle in protecting against environmental carcinogens.  Yet this urgent call from top medical experts has gone largely unheeded.  She's disappointed that despite mounting evidence that our society needs to become more cautious about preventing illness, there are strong industry forces working to stop the Safe Chemicals Act.

With a mother's womb being the first environment for the next generation, more and more moms are calling on Congress to support a precautionary approach to making consumer products.  Silberman the lawyer knows the industry lingo and arguments.  Silberman the mom simply feels that "better safer than sorry" is the moral high road America needs to take, while risk assessment risks too many innocent lives. "I feel like it's a moral outrage that we know that we're harming our children and we continue to act this way, anyway."

You can read detailed explanations and essays on the precautionary principle at the Science and Environmental Health Network's website.