- LAST REVIEWED: 03 March 2020
- LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0046
- LAST REVIEWED: 03 March 2020
- LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0046
Precautionary actions to protect health and ensure safety have always been an important part of public health practice. When hazards are well established with scientific evidence, precautionary action is most likely to receive consensus support. But when there are significant gaps in the scientific understanding of putative hazards, precautionary regulatory policies and recommendations to consumers are often controversial. Advocates for precautionary action against speculated threats have traditionally referred to commonsensical notions such as “better to be safe than sorry” and “better to err on the side of caution.” Since the 1970s, these notions have been codified into various formulations of the “precautionary principle” and have been invoked when scientific support is lacking as justifications for restricting specific technologies and requiring warnings. The precautionary principle has been applied to biotechnology, chemical pollutants, radiation exposure, food safety, medical technologies, occupational hazards, exposure to pathogenic organisms, and other public health concerns. International, national, local, and public health organizations have formally adopted frameworks for applying the precautionary principle. This article is an introductory guide to diverse formulations, analyses, applications, controversies, and implications of the precautionary principle relevant to public health practice. It is multidisciplinary with references to the literature of philosophy, ethics, law, economics, public policy, technology, risk analysis, toxicology, and other fields as well as public health.
A difficulty in studying the precautionary principle is that it has been formulated in a variety of ways with varying implications for when and how precautionary action should be implemented. No single formulation has been universally adopted. These references discuss influential statements that include definitions of the precautionary principle and analyses of various definitions. Gilbert 2020 provides a convenient overview. United Nations General Assembly 1992 offers one of the most frequently cited definitions. Sandin 1999 and Grandjean 2004 offer analyses of definitions combined with advocacy perspectives. Morris 2000 and Holdway 2009 offer analyses of definitions with an emphasis on difficulties for using them as a conceptual foundation for precautionary action. Persson 2016 suggests criteria to guide when the principle is applicable. The influential Wingspread Consensus Statement on the Precautionary Principle issued at the conclusion of the 1998 Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle defined the principle as: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically” (from Science & Environmental Health Network, cited under Activist Organizations). Conceptual challenges to defending the precautionary principle as a decision rule were raised in Carter and Peterson 2015a. Steglich-Petersen 2015 offers a response to those challenges, and Carter and Peterson 2015b offers a rejoinder.
Carter, J. Adam, and Martin Peterson. 2015a. On the epistemology of the precautionary principle. Erkenntnis 80.1: 1–13.
Raises two epistemological puzzles for defending the precautionary principle as a decision rule, one involving limitations in application of contextualism in epistemology, another involving the de minimis principle implying ignoring of farfetched risks. Calls for a nuanced formulation of the principle and bridging risk analysis with the theory of knowledge.
Carter, J. Adam, and Martin Peterson. 2015b. On the epistemology of the precautionary principle: Reply to Steglich-Petersen. Erkenntnis 81.2: 297–304.
Responds to Steglich-Petersen’s solution to the authors’ two epistemological puzzles in defending the precautionary principle. Suggests that formulating, not merely applying the principle remains a puzzle and that the choice of method for computing probability of safety (or danger) is ad hoc because a good reason behind it is lacking.
Gilbert, Steven G. 2020. Precautionary principle. In Information resources in toxicology. Vol. 1, Background, resources, and tools. Edited by Philip Wexler, Steve Gilbert, Ashish Mohapatra, Sol Bobst, Antoinette Hayes, and Sara Humes, 489–494. London: Academic Press.
Provides a concise overview of the history of the precautionary principle, including its origins in Germany, its usage around the world, and its endorsement by the US federal government when it signed and ratified the Rio Declaration of 1992. Concludes with a useful bibliography with some annotations.
Grandjean, Philippe. 2004. Implications of the precautionary principle for primary prevention and research. Annual Reviews Public Health 25:199–223.
Traces the history of precautionary action and inaction in public health in response to suggestive, but unconfirmed, hazards. Discusses many aspects of the precautionary principle, including definition, critiques, statistical issues, and the future of precaution.
Holdway, Aaron. 2009. Reducing uncertainty: The need to clarify the key elements of the precautionary principle. Consilience: The Journal of Sustainable Development 1:37–54.
Discusses shortcomings of definitions regarding level of threat that warrants action, level of evidence required to avoid taking precautionary action, range of actions to be taken, and level of force required of the actions.
Morris, Julian. 2000. Defining the precautionary principle. In Rethinking risk and the precautionary principle. Edited by Julian Morris, 1–21. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Historical overview of the precautionary principle and critique of a range of definitions. Characterizes the precautionary principle as “Pascal’s wager of the environment” and unnecessary. Argues that it leads to disingenuous demands for reversing the burden of proof and calls for overly broad duties to action that would hinder health-enhancing technological development.
Persson, Erik. 2016. What are the core ideas behind the precautionary principle? Science of the Total Environment 557–558: 134–141.
Overview paper suggests circumstances justifying extra precautionary action are systematically underestimated values; threats of irreversible, irreplaceable, severe effects; timely response is at least as important as being right; and avoiding false negatives is more important than avoiding false positives.
Sandin, Per. 1999. Dimensions of the precautionary principle. Human and Ecological Risk Assessment 5.5: 889–907.
Compilation and analysis of definitions given by seventeen different agencies. Notes how definitions vary in precision and strength but includes as components threat, uncertainty, action, and mandate.
Steglich-Petersen, Asbjørn. 2015. The epistemology of the precautionary principle: Two puzzles resolved. Erkenntnis 80.5: 1013–1021.
Claims to resolve the epistemological puzzles in Carter and Peterson 2015a for defending the precautionary principle. Argues that adjudicating between relevant interests in threat assessment is normal in applying the precautionary principle in policymaking and that Carter and Peterson mistakenly dismissed a method for computing the probability of safety as ad hoc.
United Nations General Assembly. 1992. Report of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Annex I, Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, 3–14 June 1992.
Principle 15 defines the precautionary approach as: Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
- Access to Health Care
- Action Research
- Active Aging
- Active Living
- Adolescent Health, Socioeconomic Inequalities in
- Adolescent Risk-Taking Behavior in the United States
- Advocacy, Public Health
- Agricultural Safety and Public Health
- Air Quality: Health Effects
- Air Quality: Indoor Health Effects
- Alcohol Availability and Violence
- Alternative Research Designs
- Ambient Air Quality Standards and Guidelines
- American Perspectives on Chronic Disease and Control
- Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR)
- Arts in Health
- Asthma in Children
- Asthma, Work-Related
- Attachment as a Health Determinant
- Behavior Change Theory in Health Education and Promotion
- Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance
- Bicycling and Cycling Safety
- Birth and Death Registration
- Birth Cohort Studies
- Board of Health
- Built Environment and Health, The
- Business and Corporate Practices
- Cancer Communication Strategies in North America
- Cancer Prevention
- Cancer Screening
- Capacity Building
- Capacity Building for NCDs in LMICs
- Capacity-Building for Applied Public Health in LMIC: A US ...
- Cardiovascular Health and Disease
- Child Labor
- Child Maltreatment
- Children, Air Pollution and
- Children, Injury Risk-Taking Behaviors in
- Children, Obesity in
- Citizen Advisory Boards
- Climate Change and Human Health
- Climate Change: Institutional Response
- Clinical Preventive Medicine
- Community Air Pollution
- Community Development
- Community Gardens
- Community Health Assessment
- Community Health Interventions
- Community Partnerships and Coalitions
- Community-Based Participatory Research
- Complexity and Systems Theory
- Cultural Safety
- Culture and Public Health
- Definition of Health
- Dental Public Health
- Design and Health
- Dietary Guidelines
- Directions in Global Public Health Graduate Education
- Driving and Public Health
- Ecological Approaches
- Enabling Factors
- Environmental Health, Pediatric
- Environmental Laws
- Environmental Protection Agency
- Ethics of Public Health
- Evidence-Based Pediatric Dentistry
- Evidence-Based Public Health Practice
- Family Planning Services and Birth Control
- Food Safety
- Food Security and Food Banks
- Food Systems
- Frail Elderly
- Functional Literacy
- Genomics, Public Health
- Geographic Information Systems
- Geography and Health
- Global Health
- Global Health Diplomacy
- Global Health Promotion
- Global Health Security
- Guide to Community Preventive Services, The
- Health Administration
- Health Communication
- Health Disparities
- Health Education
- Health Impact Assessment
- Health in All Policies
- Health in All Policies in European Countries
- Health Literacy
- Health Literacy and Non-Communicable Diseases
- Health Measurement Scales
- Health Planning
- Health Promoting Hospitals
- Health Promotion
- Health Promotion Foundations
- Health Promotion Workforce Capacity
- Health Promotion Workforce Capacity
- Health Systems of Low and Middle-Income Countries, The
- Healthy People Initiative
- Healthy Public Policy
- Hepatitis C
- High Risk Prevention Strategies
- Human Rights, Health and
- Human Sexuality and Sexual Health: A Western Perspective
- IANPHI and National Public Health Institutes
- Immigrant Populations
- Immunization and Pneumococcal Infection
- Immunization in Pregnancy
- Indigenous Peoples, Public Health and
- Indigenous Populations of North America, Australasia, and ...
- Indoor Air Quality Guidelines
- Infant Mortality
- Internet Applications in Promoting Health Behavior
- Intersectoral Action
- Intersectoral Strategies in Low - Middle Income Countries ...
- Justice, Social
- Knowledge Translation and Exchange
- Knowledge Utilization and Exchange
- Law of Public Health in the United States
- Media Advocacy
- Mental Health
- Mental Health Promotion
- Migrant Health
- Migrant Worker Health
- Motor Vehicle Injury Prevention
- Multi-Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis
- National Association of Local Boards of Health
- National Public Health Institutions
- Needs Assessment
- Needs Assessments in International Disasters and Emergenci...
- Obesity Prevention
- Occupational Cancers
- Occupational Exposure to Benzene
- Occupational Exposure to Erionite
- Occupational Safety and Health
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
- Oral Health Equity for Minority Populations in the United ...
- Ottawa Charter
- Parenting and Work
- Parenting Skills and Capacity
- Participatory Action Research
- Patient Decision Making
- Pesticide Exposure and Pesticide Health Effects
- Physical Activity and Exercise
- Physical Activity Promotion
- Polio Eradication in Pakistan
- Population Aging
- Population Determinants of Unhealthy Foods and Beverages
- Population Health Objectives and Targets
- Precautionary Principle
- Prenatal Health
- Program Evaluation in American Health Education
- Program Planning and Evaluation
- Public Health, History of
- Public Health Surveillance
- Public-Private Partnerships in Public Health Research and ...
- Public-Private Partnerships to Prevent and Manage Obesity ...
- Quantitative Microbial Risk Assessment
- Racism as a Structural Determinant of Health
- Radiological and Nuclear Emergencies
- Randomized Controlled Trials
- Real World Evaluation Strategies
- Reducing Obesity-Related Health Disparities in Hispanic an...
- Research Integrity in Public Health
- Resilient Health Systems
- Rural Health in the United States
- Safety, Patient
- School Health Programs in the Pacific Region
- Sex Education in HIV/AIDS Prevention
- Skin Cancer Prevention
- Smoking Cessation
- Social Determinants of Health
- Social Epidemiology
- Social Marketing
- Statistics in Public Health
- STI Networks, Patterns, and Control Strategies
- Sustainable Development Goals
- Systems in the United States, Public Health
- Systems Modeling and Big Data for Non-Communicable Disease...
- Systems Theory in Public Health
- Traditional, Complementary, Alternative, and Integrative M...
- Translation of Science to Practice and Policy
- Traumatic Stress and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Tuberculosis among Adults and the Determinants of Health
- UK Public Health Systems
- Unintentional Injury Prevention
- Urban Health
- Vaccination, Mandatory
- Vaccine Hesitancy
- Violence Prevention
- Water Quality
- Water Quality and Water-Related Disease
- Weight Management in US Occupational Settings
- Welfare States, Public Health and Health Inequalities
- Worksite Health Promotion
- World Health Organization (WHO)