Scientific INformAtion for Policy Support in Europe
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Document "Prudent precaution": English Abstract
What approach should be adopted towards new technologies or products, whose impact on public health or the environment is difficult to predict? And what steps should be taken if doubts arise about the safety of products or technology already on the market? Uncertainty regarding harmful effects on health or the environment requires a policy in which precaution is central. However, this does not mean that such technologies or products should be held back or banned. The precautionary principle should rather be seen as a strategy involving a careful, transparent approach to uncertainties, which is appropriate to the situation. The result is not set in stone beforehand. So says the advisory report issued by the Health Council of the Netherlands and submitted to the Minister of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment on 26 September 2008.

The arrival of new technological innovations or products is often met with optimism regarding their potential usefulness for society. However, bitter experiences in the past have taught us that products can sometimes later prove to be very harmful to health or the environment, like asbestos or CFCs for example. The response has rightly been more focus on precaution. However, it is not possible to exclude every risk; otherwise there would never be any more new development.
According to the Health Council, precaution is therefore above all a process. In this process, each case is individually considered to decide on the best approach: leave a product or technology alone, demand modifications, establish conditions, impose restrictions in space or time, ban them, develop them, offer alternative products or technology or conduct further research. For each of these options, the positive and the negative, the certain and the uncertain consequences are considered. Taking all these consequences into account, we then have to determine the probability that they will become reality and how bad that would be. It is also important to assess who will benefit and who will pay. The interests of future generations are expressly taken into account. The result strives to achieve the right balance between innovation and caution.
The precautionary approach is not only a matter for the government. It almost always involves matters which are difficult to compare and may be impossible to quantify. Besides facts and uncertainties, value judgements also play a large role. The involvement of interested parties is therefore essential. This produces better results, creates more support and increases confidence in the government. Such participative decision-making is not easy, however. There is also a need for methods and experts who are able to steer this process.
Whatever decision is taken – leave alone, ban, or something in between – it is important to continue monitoring the situation. New knowledge may lead to a better founded and different decision in time. This also prevents early signs of damage going unnoticed or being disregarded for a long time.
Uncertainties occur in all areas of public health policy: healthcare, food, health and safety policy and environmental management. The precautionary principle can be applied in all these areas. The Council recommends creating a culture in which a careful and transparent approach to uncertainties is considered the norm.

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