Philosophical Society of Washington

Reducing Risks to Our Health and Our Environment

The Roles of Science and Precaution

Gail Charnley
Society for Risk Analysis

2164th Meeting Abstract
Friday, September 12, 2003 at 8:15 PM


There are no magic equations to define precisely how much science is needed to serve as the basis for taking actions to reduce environmental threats.  The US generally waits until a problem is well defined scientifically before protective actions are taken.  That approach is consistent with the US legal tradition, but opponents justifiably point to the preventable health consequences of delaying regulatory action while scientific analysis is debated.  A reaction to the US approach has been the rise in Europe of the so-called “precautionary principle.”  The precautionary principle is defined in a number of different ways and its interpretation appears to depend on one's policy goals.  The short and sweet definition is:  Better safe than sorry.  That is, it is better to take actions to prevent a possible risk even if it has not been adequately characterized scientifically.  In Europe and in most of the rest of the industrialized world, government regulatory decisions are not subject to judicial challenges in court to nearly the same degree as they are in the US and the necessary procedures for marshaling and analyzing scientific evidence before a decision is made are thus nowhere near as great.  In such an atmosphere, precaution is more easily proposed as the basis for decision-making.  This presentation will describe how science-based environmental health risk management decision-making has evolved in the US and how a policy of science-based precaution might work to improve public and environmental health protection.

About the Author:

Gail Charnley is an internationally recognized expert in environmental health risk assessment and risk management science and policy. She has over 20 years of experience in environmental toxicology, human health risk assessment, and risk management, writing and speaking extensively on issues related to the role of science and risk analysis in environmental health policy and decision-making. Dr. Charnley focuses on the strategic risk management of complex scientific issues related to, for example, the implementation of numerous regulatory programs and standards, including the Clean Air Act, Food Quality and Protection Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed cancer risk assessment guidelines and Integrated Risk Information System. She is an adjunct faculty member in the Harvard School of Public Health's Center for Risk Analysis and has chaired or served on numerous peer review panels convened by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. During its tenure, she was executive director of the Presidential/Congressional Commission on Risk Assessment and Risk Management, mandated by Congress to evaluate the role that risk assessment and risk management play in federal regulatory programs, establishing her as a leader in health risk-related public policy. Before her appointment to the Commission, she served as acting director of the Toxicology and Risk Assessment Program at the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council. She has been the project director for several National Academy of Sciences committees, including the Committee on Risk Assessment Methodology and the Complex Mixtures Committee, and served as the chair of several U.S. Army Science Advisory Board committees that evaluated health risk assessment practices in the Army. She lectures frequently on risk science policy issues and is the author of numerous reports evaluating the toxicity of chemical exposures and their potential impact on public health as well as on risk management and democratic environmental decision-making. She is a fellow and past president of the international Society for Risk Analysis, for which she has also served as councilor and chair of the public policy committee. She holds a Ph.D. in Toxicology from M.I.T. and an A.B. in biochemistry from Wellesley College.

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