Risk expert: Policymakers often misuse precautionary principle

This article is part of our special report Risk vs. hazard in policymaking.

Evaluating risk requires a balance of quantitative assessment and regulatory review. But often in the European Union, there is a “misuse” of the precautionary principle to appease national of political interests, says Ragnar Löfstedt.

Ragnar Löfstedt is a professor of risk management and the director of the King’s College Centre for Risk Management in London.

He spoke to EURACTIV’s Timothy Spence ahead of the European Risk Summit, 11-12 June, in Dublin.

Your research interests are quite diverse – health, energy, trans-boundary environmental issues, biosafety. How do these relate to risk management?

My interest in this whole field started back in the ‘80s with the Chernobyl accident. And I was very interested then to uncover how people viewed nuclear power in different nations. So I did my undergraduate dissertation on this and I compared Germany, Finland and Sweden focusing on how people’s perceptions changed over time.

All these three countries were more or less rather pro-nuclear power before Chernobyl and then afterwards it changed quite dramatically – in Germany the levels never got back to be being pro-nuclear power as witnessed by [Chancellor Angela] Merkel’s recent decision to phase out nuclear power. In Sweden it basically dipped for a period of months and then it came back to more or less in favour of nuclear again, and in Finland it dipped as well and came back up, but not as high as Sweden. So I was fascinated to see how public perceptions changes over time and the reasons for that …

During my post-doc, which I carried out at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria, I got interested in transboundary risk issues because of what you can call the cultural dimension. Why did the Danes have such opposite views to nuclear power compared to the Swedes? Then from energy I got involved in space – I did some work for NASA – and that’s how I got involved in biosafety … and from there I got involved in food… I was heavily involved in the whole acrylamide scare in Sweden back in 2002 at which time I examined how the Swedish food agency mishandled this scare from a communication perspective. And from there into pharmaceuticals.

As time has gone by, people have encouraged me to look at different avenues and move away from energy and it has been a fascinating journey. I have looked at risk from two perspectives: one is from the risk communication side of things, the other is the risk management side of things.

With regard to the risk communication, I try to find out, for example, how regulators do good or bad communication – hence this acrylamide paper, where the food agency did a bad a job. I try to figure out what Agencies can do to rebuild trust if something goes wrong. That is, if there is some form of “incident”, how can the regulators rebuild the trust that has gone missing?

And the other part of it is the whole risk management area, a topic that I have been working on for many years since completing my PhD at Clark University [in Massachusetts]. It is interesting to note, for example, how risk management has very much started from a core US competency. Until the last 20 years, over 90% of all the work in risk management had been done in the United States … and it is only recently that the Europeans have gotten interested in both risk assessment and risk analysis.

Why is that?

What happened was that in the US the risk analysis field started in three sectors – nuclear power, space and chemicals.  It took off following the infamous so-called benzene decision of 1980 [AFL-CIO vs. American Petroleum Institute] where the US Supreme Court more or less ruled that all regulations affecting human health should be based on quantitative risk assessments. And that has been the case ever since. … So the Americans started with this in a very strong way, and it’s only more recently that it came to Europe.

One of the topics for discussion at the European Risk Summit raises the question: Risk-based policy-making and the precautionary principle – have we got it right? What is your answer?

If we look at the European Commission’s communication on the precautionary principle from 2000, I think that is a very balanced and well-written statement. The European Commission had to write it at the time because they were being criticised, particularly with regard to trade disputes with a number partners, especially the United States, that they were misusing their principle.  Hence, they had to come forward with a “communication” on it.

The communication discusses the importance of having a risk assessment as the basis for using the precautionary principle. As the Commission itself argues, “An assessment of risk should be considered where feasible when deciding whether or not to invoke the precautionary principle.” So I think that’s a good document and I’d like to see risk management decisions that invoke the precautionary principle going forward being based on that communication.

The problem that we have today, however, is that I see right now a number of organisations, as well as policymakers, are using the precautionary principle without basically going back to the communication the way the European Commission actually intended its use. As a result, I see a misuse of the precautionary principle which is very unfortunate.

Can you give an example?

One famous example, highlighted by the eminent political scientist Giandomenico Majone, was the decision taken by the European Commission in the late 1990s with regard to adopting strict standards for aflatoxins on the basis of the precautionary principle. The World Bank showed that implementing the new standards would decrease the exports of dried fruits, cereals and nuts from Africa by 64% resulting in some $700 million [equivalent to €541 million today] a year in lost income for these poor economies, all for reducing the deaths from liver cancer by 1.4 deaths per billion in Europe per year. 

A more recent example is Åsa Westlund’s endocrine disruptor opinion … It is a fascinating read in which more or less argues that because of the feared effects of endocrine disrupters this should override any evidence-based reasoning.

Such statements can be applied to more or less anything – you basically could apply it to chocolate, milk or why not coffee. The document is rather woolly, unfortunately, and it’s not as clear as it could have been. It’s certainly not based on the Commission’s communication. … I’ve used that Westlund opinion as a case study in my risk assessment class showing this is a clear misuse of the precautionary principle.

How effective are the European agencies – the medicines, food safety and chemicals agencies come to mind – in evaluating risks and protecting European consumers?

I should declare an interest here. I sit on a risk communication advisory board for the European Food Safety Authority, and so EFSA I know well. And I think it’s very clear EFSA is a risk-assessment body and not a risk-management body. Risk management is done by DG Sanco, EFSA does risk assessment.

In terms of EFSA’s risk assessment, I am not a risk assessor myself, but from what I’ve read, from what I’ve seen of them, I find them highly professional [and their assessments are] well done in a strong academic way. And this is, by the way, shared by my colleagues who are risk assessors. We think EFSA is doing a good job.

EFSA, of course, has been and is attacked by a number of NGOs – it is very unfortunate that some individuals have not been clear and transparent in terms of declaring their interests … But as a risk-assessment agency, EFSA is seen as credible.

In terms of the European Medicines Agency, I know them a bit as well, I think the [EMA] is also overall doing a good job. If you look at what the EMA has been doing and you compare it, for example, to the US [Food and Drug Administration], in terms of pharmaceuticals they are equally credible – I don’t see a problem with them. With ECHA [European Chemicals Agency], I don’t know it well at all … so I really don’t have an opinion of them.

They’ve also been criticised for being too slow in making decisions. Do you find that the case?

I don’t think so. EFSA especially is under quite a bit of pressure to ensure they get their science right from certain NGOs and also from the European Parliament. Hence, they need to take the time to make sure that their science is right.

Science is an uncertain business and businesses use science all the time to take risks. Are there examples where businesses hide behind scientific uncertainty to takes risks that pose a threat to human health or the environment?

The classic example comes from the tobacco sector. There is very clear evidence that Philip Morris and others tried to halt legislation on tobacco by throwing in scientific uncertainty. And to be very frank, I think that is disgraceful and it is horrible thing they have done. It gives us academics who have been devoting our entire lives to the field of risk a bad name. What happens now is that campaign groups will say because of what Philip Morris and those folks did, the purpose of all risk assessments is basically about trying to help business slow down the regulatory process. And that simply is not the case … but people will believe it.

Overall, of course, I have to admit I am biased myself. I think that risk management science is trying to put forward a balanced perspective to ensure that the regulations that are coming out are as much as possible based on the best available evidence. And do those of us in the risk community always succeed? Absolutely not, there have been a number of failures in the past but that is something we have tried to improve and work on.

GMOs have been debated for years if not decades. It’s an emotional debate as well as political …

The issue in many countries here is that nations have so-called pet risks. The Austrians are very strongly anti-GMOs, they always have been. Austria can afford to do because Monsanto is headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, not in Vienna.

The Swedes are very strongly anti-chemicals. Why is Sweden anti-chemicals? They can afford to do so because there is not a real chemical industry in Sweden. Therefore [Sweden] is being super tough on chemicals and trying to phase out one chemical after another, using both precautionary and substitution principles, combined with hazard classification. Sweden’s objective has long been to have a so called non-toxic society by the year 2020.

Yet at the same time they are pushing for tough chemical regulations,  Sweden has been attempting to persuade  the European Commission and European Parliament that they should be [allowed] to continue to consume fatty Baltic Sea fish, especially fermented herring as well as salmon.

It turns out that these herring and salmon have four to five times the level of dioxin above the recommended daily intake allowance – four to five times higher. Why is this? This is about saving jobs along the northern coast of Sweden. So is this hypocrisy? Yes, it’s hypocrisy. But basically with regard to those fatty fish, the Swedes are letting their own population be poisoned by eating the fatty fish because they want to protect jobs. But it’s very easy for them to be anti-chemicals because there is no chemical industry …

So let’s put this in context. What’s happening here is that nations have so-called pet risks. The Austrians are anti-GMOs, the Danes are anti-nuclear power. Is there nuclear power in Denmark? No. Swedes are anti-chemicals. Are there any chemical plants in Sweden? No …

… So economic factors trump risk management?

You can say that. Economic factors have a crucial bearing on how countries view regulatory affairs. It’s an absolutely crucial factor. And now what I find interesting is that these countries are putting forward these policies but ignoring the bigger picture. In Sweden, rather than spend all this time trying to put forward a non-toxic environment, we should be focusing on the real risks – for example, let’s ensure that children and women of child-bearing aid are aware about the high levels of dioxin in Baltic Sea fish …

You have a research interest in transboundary environmental issues. What is the biggest such risk today in Europe?

Air pollution is still a very big factor. We need to get our hands on it. What I find interesting here that we should really be focusing on reducing fine particulate matter emissions from cars, especially from diesel engines. And this is an area that needs much greater attention that it has today …

And why aren’t we paying much attention to this? It goes back to the issue of risk perception. Regulators, media, various interest groups and others focus on risks that have a number of different categories attached to them. These are (a) involuntary rather than voluntary; (b) unfamiliar rather than familiar; (c) uncontrollable rather than controllable; (d) they affect children rather than, say, old people. There are a number of these crucial factors – also, they may be produced by individuals who are not trusted – the so-called risk-perception factors. And if you look at any kind of campaign, they focus on unknown risk say a new chemical – it’s unfamiliar, it’s involuntary, it affects kids, it’s produced by a distrusted chemical industry, and is also technological rather than natural …  And that’s the crucial issue.

With cars, they are familiar, they have been around forever. A 2-year-old can see exhaust coming out of a car. We accept that. Cars are familiar. But small amounts of chemicals we have never heard of before, they hit all those risk-factor buttons. And that’s how these campaigns are drawn up because people will listen to them.

What should regulators and policymakers being doing to minimise environmental risk?

They should be working much more with the broader academic risk committees.  In addition the regulatory bodies themselves should also have attached to them some kind of risk communication advisory board or even a risk science advisory board, to ensure that they focus on the right risks and not on the wrong risks, so they are not basically being driven by media amplification … Having media reporting on food and chemical scares that are not based on evidence is worrying and this is something that we need to address going forward.

Photo of Ragnar Löfstedt: King’s College London

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