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The Precautionary Principle: Better Sorry than Safe?

On April 1, 2014, The Royal Society of Canada (RSC) produced a report reviewing Canada’s EMF exposure guidelines included in Health Canada’s Safety Code 6, recommending against modifying EMF exposure limits. And in doing so, they are ignoring the precautionary principle. As the RSC explained:

“The conclusion of the panel was that the Safety Code 6 limits are science-based and are designed to avoid all known hazards of radiofrequency radiation,” said panel chair Paul Demers, director of the Occupational Cancer Research Centre in Toronto. “And we do not believe at this time that additional precautionary measures should be introduced directly into the exposure levels or limits.”

With their findings, RSC has missed an opportunity to recommend updates to Canada’s EMF exposure guidelines. And, in so doing, RSC explicitly recommended against application of the precautionary principle in regulating EMF emissions.

What is the Precautionary Principle?

Late Lessons from Early Warnings
‘Late Lessons from Early Warnings’ was updated in 2013, demonstrating “how damaging and costly the misuse or neglect of the precautionary principle can be.”

The precautionary principle is essentially the application of “better safe than sorry” to environmental challenges. The underlying idea is this: irreversible damage can emerge from suspected threats, before there is conclusive proof that the threat is real.

In their report, the RSC noted:

“This is an area that certainly deserves further scrutiny, but at this point it’s still in the possible category in terms of a potential health effect. So that’s why we recommend that there still be research ongoing.”

So, the RSC does acknowledge that current science demonstrates that EMF bears “possible” health effects— but since those health effects are not yet known with certainty, no further regulatory action should be taken at this time.

In other words, instead of “better safe than sorry,” the Royal Society of Canada argues that it is better to be sorry than safe.

Or, to paraphrase Paul Demers (quoted above), ‘sure, EMF exposure might possibly cause cancer, but let’s not do anything about it until we know for sure.’

The Precautionary Principle and Late Lessons from Early Warnings

Late Lessons from Early Warnings (first published in 2001, and updated in 2013) analyzes the use, misuse and neglect of the precautionary principle at many different times in history. Late Lessons provides a guide to evaluating large and complex environmental threats, balancing the cost of inaction against the cost of action. One of the purposes of this report is to:

“learn from some very expensive ‘mistakes’ in the past so as to help societies make fewer mistakes now, and in the future, especially with some of the relatively new, largely unknown, yet already widespread technologies like nanotechnology and mobile phones;

And so, when you read that there is no “conclusive proof” that EMF exposures can yield negative health effects in human beings, that is accurate. The science in this area is complex, and still quite young. Different studies have shown very different results.

At the same time, that does not mean we should wait until the proof is conclusive, before taking action.

Just because there is not yet “conclusive proof” does not mean science has not demonstrated significant cause for concern. And by the time we have conclusive proof, there may well be widespread and irreversible damage.

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