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Fallout from the precautionary principle: adverse effects underestimated, says a new study from the Institut économique Molinari (IEM)

Media release

Paris, Monday, September 30, 2013 – In recent years, governments have been making more systematic use of the precautionary principle (PP). This principle has been used to justify actions that not only hurt the economy and innovation but that sometimes are hazardous to the health and the environment. Far from reducing risks, political use of PP often leads to cures that are “worse than the disease.”

Legal insecurity and obstacles to innovation

PP was applied initially to avoid irreversible damage to the environment but later became a sort of catch-all. It is used to justify intervention by public authorities even if it is scientifically unjustified or there is no demonstrable risk to the environment.

In the name of PP, everyday products have been targeted, such as:

• vitamin-fortified cornflakes (Norway);

• fruit juices with added Vitamin C (Denmark);

• energy drinks (France); and

• electronic cigarettes (France).

This arbitrary climate hurts economic activity, technological innovation and scientific progress.

But that’s not all. The paradox of PP is that, despite its intent, applying it may actually lead to higher risk, for a number of reasons.

A principle that can kill

The benefits of products or activities targeted by PP tend to be disregarded. The risks this creates are all the greater in that the targeted products are benchmarks in their respective sectors.

Two examples help illustrate these types of unexpected effects from PP:

• DDT: a benchmark in the fight against malaria in the mid-20th century. Suspected in particular of harming some birds, its use was halted. This led to a resurgence of the disease in many countries, causing an average of 756,000 deaths a year worldwide (2000-2010).

• Bisphenol A (BPA): a chemical product widely used for more than 50 years, in particular to protect food in cans or jars from possible contamination. With France planning to ban it from all containers in 2015, substitutes may be less effective in fighting food poisoning or botulism (another fatal disease).

New risks

• Relay antennas: increased exposure for 90% of people in France

Applying PP may also prove to be a source of new risks. The current French government, for example, is considering a reduction in the power of relay antennas. This will require mobile phone operators to boost the number of antennas so as to offset the smaller coverage areas. According to scientific opinion, this will increase the exposure of 90% of people in France to electromagnetic waves since the transmission power of a mobile phone intensifies with each change of area.

• Biofuels: CO2 emissions could double over a 30-year period and responsible for up to 75% of farm price increases between 2002 and 2008

In the name of PP and the fight against global warming, public authorities have been promoting biofuels. These fuels receive fiscal and regulatory preference but cause economic distortions (waste in the use of land, energy and water, greater pesticide and fertiliser use, etc.).

They also contribute to a sharp rise in agricultural prices and increase the risk of food crises. The IMF’s index of food commodities prices increased 130% between 2002 and 2008, and it is estimated that biofuel policy was responsible for up to 75% of this increase. Even the carbon impact of biofuels – their main official justification – may be negative. According to some estimates, they may double CO2 over a 30-year period relative to the emissions caused by the use of gasoline.

Results of all the adverse effects of PP are such that they can no longer be disregarded. Prudence is called for each time policy decisions are put forward in its name, the IEM study concludes.

Titled The precautionary principle and its underestimated adverse effects: economic, health and environmental risks, the study is available on our website.

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The Institut économique Molinari (IEM) is an independent, non-profit research and educational organization. Its mission is to promote an economic approach to the study of public policy issues by offering innovative solutions that foster prosperity for all.

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Information and interview requests:

Cécile Philippe, PhD

Director, Institut économique Molinari

+33 6 78 86 98 58

L’Institut économique Molinari

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