In this culture, where technology makes a lot of things possible and affordable, we North Americans are inclined to embrace new things wholeheartedly. Some would say we’ve thrown caution to the wind in the rush toward new and improved.
If we stopped to take a breath, we might decide that sometimes the precautionary principle is called for. The Canadian Environmental Law Association defines it this way: “The precautionary principle denotes a duty to prevent harm, when it is within our power to do so, even when all the evidence is not in.”
Sometimes it takes a number of years for harm to show up. By then, many people have been affected. By the time we experience these unintended consequences, the product is entrenched in such a way that banning it becomes an epic struggle. Bisphenol A (BPA) is one example. Read this blog for more about toxic ingredients in non-food items we use regularly.
We’d like to think that scientists can do a study and find definitive proof of the safety (or not) of a product. Not so. Scientific uncertainty is a fact of life, and scientists word their statements cautiously.
Years ago, when I was investigating the relationship between food additives and children’s behaviour, I watched a film in which a highly placed Canadian health official talked about food additives and safety. He said, “We can never definitely prove safety. At the most, we can say that, in the quantities given and under the conditions of the test, a particular additive is probably not unsafe.”
I remember his statement so vividly because it was one of those pivotal moments when a bubble burst for me. Before then, I had lived under the happy illusion that if something had been tested and approved, then it was clearly safe for consumption. In that moment, I realized this is not true. Stating that something is “probably not unsafe” is quite different from providing an assurance that it is safe.
By allowing new products to be widely used until proven harmful, we become inadvertent test subjects. What if we changed our attitude and created a culture of preventing harm instead? We could ask how little harm is possible instead of how much harm we are willing to permit. The precautionary principle is based on this important distinction.
Originating in Germany in the 1970s, the precautionary principle has now become part of international law. We can hope that our governments will use this principle to guide their decisions and avoid unintended negative consequences from new chemicals being introduced into our food and environment.
In reality, this doesn’t always happen. Many products in the marketplace are detrimental to our health and well-being. So it’s important that we take individual action to look after ourselves. That’s what healthy deviance is about.
But we need to keep a sense of proportion…
Conscious consumption challenges us to choose judiciously rather than react in a knee-jerk fashion. We need to keep a sense of proportion. Automatically shunning everything new is as shortsighted as mindlessly adopting everything that comes along.
Someone who generally takes a balanced view is Dr. Alan Christianson, a Naturopathic Medical Doctor (NMD) who writes a useful newsletter. One thing I appreciate is that he’s an independent thinker. Rather than repeating the common wisdom, he investigates by reading research studies and forming his own assessment. Sometimes he does a direct investigation himself.
In the video below, he is looking into the level of electromagnetic fields generated by appliance and devices in his house. Many of us wonder if we should turn our wi-fi off when it’s not in use, or if we should be concerned about carrying a cellphone in our pocket. He measures these and much more.
The video received a lot of response, so the following week he posted another one to answer the questions that arose.
I’m curious what you think. Looking forward to comments.