April 3, 2011

Precautionary approach to chemicals best for kids

As a professor of environmental policy, I write in response to Jon Reisman's March 26 column criticizing the policy basis of the Kid-Safe Products Act.

Reisman takes issue with a precautionary approach to assessing a chemical's impact on children. He would like to see the burden of proof fall on the public rather than the manufacturer.

The precautionary principle comes from Hippocrates, father of western medicine, who admonished physicians to "First, do no harm." This perspective helps explain why the Maine Medical Association, the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Maine Nurses Association all supported the Kid-Safe Products Act when it passed overwhelmingly in the Maine Legislature.

Reisman advocates risk assessment. Risk assessment calculates relative harms and benefits of a chemical without looking at alternatives. The Kid-Safe Products Act, by contrast, calculates the availability and affordability of safer alternatives to chemicals that credible scientific evidence has shown to be harmful and in products to which children are exposed.

The second approach is far less costly to society in terms of dollars, health and environmental safety. Instead of holding on to dangerous chemicals, we choose affordable safer substitutes.

I believe the precautionary approach is the one that most Maine parents and grandparents want to take when it comes to exposing children to hazardous chemicals. In light of recent environmental health findings and situations, it may be the wisest approach overall.

From tobacco to asbestos to lead, from offshore oil drilling to nuclear power plant safety, it is difficult to think of a policy arena where society would wish that environmental health regulation had put less of a burden of proof on the producers of these chemicals and activities.

Nancy Ross

Unity College professor


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