Washington State Finds the High Cost of the Precautionary Principle

One of the favored approaches used by the environmental community to put their thumb on the scales is the appeal to the “precautionary principle” which argues that in the absence of clear science, regulators should err on the side of “precaution” by banning whatever environmentalists fear, from chemical compounds to environmental practices. The problem, of course, is that taking action without understanding the potential impacts often creates more risk than it avoids. The latest example comes from Washington state.

After numerous scares about the impact of a vaccine preservative called thimerosal, including the claim it caused autism, Washington state put limits on its use. Those concerns turned out not only to be false but fraudulent. That realization, however, didn’t cause the legislature to change the law.

Now those limits are being waived in the face of a serious flu epidemic that has created a shortage of vaccines. In its statement, the Washington State Department of Health explained those limits contributed to the shortage.

Department of Health director Mary Selecky explained that Washington state law limits the amount of thimerosal “as a precaution.” What is the result of that precaution? Selecky’s agency goes on to explain:

Increased demand and disease has led to thimerosal-free flu vaccine being especially limited. This could stop children younger than three and pregnant women who want the vaccine from getting it. Suspending the thimerosal limits law removes barriers so people can choose to be protected against influenza. Pregnant women and children under three are at high risk for serious complications if they get the flu. Providers and patients now have the opportunity to use other types of flu vaccine instead of not vaccinating at all.

In other words, the limits on thimerosal contributed to a situation where those most at risk from influenza could not receive the necessary vaccination. Politicians in Olympia passed a law that created more risk than it avoided because it ignored the science in favor of a purely emotional precautionary standard.

What have state legislators learned from this experience? Sadly, not much.

State Senator Marilyn Chase recently introduced legislation that would expand the “precautionary” standard to all environmental policy. SB 5255 would allow state agencies to take action even when the science is not available. The bill says:

…it is the intent of this act that all agencies should implement environmental quality and public health policies through a precautionary approach, meaning that where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage to human health or to the environment, the lack of full scientific certainty about cause and effect may not be viewed as sufficient reason for the state to postpone cost-effective measures to prevent the damage.

The clear intent of the legislation is to put politics ahead of science. If science can’t deliver a clear answer, politics will. Of course there is no standard for precaution, so any time a regulator decides there isn’t enough evidence, he or she can simply decide to take an action in the name of precaution.

Substituting the amorphous standard of precaution for science and ignoring the consequences of “precautionary” regulation in favor of feared, but unsubstantiated, impacts is why President Obama’s first regulatory czar called the precautionary principle “literally incoherent.”

Advocates of the precautionary principle say it codifies the simple maxim of “better safe than sorry.” Sadly, the results of the principle’s application show that ignoring science too often results in reducing safety and increasing sorrow.

Comments (3)

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  1. Andrew O says:

    I agree that many legislators put politics before science, which can cost significant social and physical consequences. I think that before something is implemented to the public, it should have already been backed by objective science. With the example provided in the article, however, it would be interesting to see how the alleged effects from the vaccine were proven to be fraudulent. If this was indeed the case, then there should have also been evidence of no other serious side effects so that the patient is aware of the consequences of the vaccination. And with those measures in place, the need to support a precautionary measure becomes obsolete and silly. However, this problem seems to face a never-ending cycle as science can easily be manipulated and special interests continue to come first.

  2. Gabriel Odom says:

    While I am particularly happy that children’s toys are no longer painted with lead paint, I feel that government safety regulations often go too far to “save even one life”.
    I have no desire to be calloused, but principals enacted to “save one life” often come at the expense of great livelihood or utility. If we outlawed motorcycles, we could save over 3,600 lives each year. If we outlawed cars, we could save over 30,000 lives. At any juncture, we as citizens of the United States have the option to trade our freedom for safety. While prevention is important, I think that the founding fathers – who were willing to risk their own lives for our freedom – would find it perverse that we would even think of trading our freedom for something as juvenile as government mandated safety.

  3. Terry W says:

    While I in no way claim to have insight into the situation you reference in Washington nor am I an expert on vaccines, I do question your assessment of this situation and see in your argument an unwarranted conservative-bias against what I see as appropriate government action. I think the State of Washington has acted prudently with regard to their position on the use of thimerosal-preserved vaccines and likewise has shown appropriate support for a measured use of the precautionary principle.

    As a starting point, if you look at the thimerosal issue you will note that the CDC indicates that “… the Public Health Service agencies, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and vaccine manufacturers agreed that thimerosal should be reduced or eliminated in vaccines as a precautionary measure.” It seems to me that the State of Washington’s action with regard to thimerosal-preserved vaccines is a reasoned response based on medical and public health considerations and current practice rather than your implied political manipulation or the environmentalist’s thumb on the scale.

    While there is plenty of CDC, academic, and industry research to dispel concerns about the link of thimerosal to neurological disorders like Autism (spelled out in no uncertain terms on the CDC website), I do not see how the precautionary principle is now implicated in this situation. Keep in mind that there have been significant pharmaceutical industry efforts to remove thimerosal and the industry now offers a full range of vaccines that do not contain this mercury-bearing preservative. In a general sense, mercury represents a potential human health impact. Now that non-thimerosal vaccines are available, continuing to utilize a non-thimerosal vaccine for young children or pregnant women seems appropriate. If you were to suggest and had scientific evidence that these non-thimerosal vaccines were unsafe or had less efficacy, then I think your argument might have some merit.

    Unfortunately, your post also leaves the impression of an overall lack of vaccine availability in Washington and seemingly suggests that actions taken by the State (based on what you suggest is an inappropriate use of the precautionary principle) have led to a flu vaccine shortage. The issue, as I understand it, concerns a low supply of non-thimerosal-preserved flu vaccine that is suggested for use with young children and pregnant women. As we know, the actual or perceived incidence of flue was high this year, putting a strain on the overall supply of vaccine. Manufacturing of vaccines requires a long lead-time so it is manufactured according to expected requirements. Furthermore, the use of this vaccine varies greatly based on the public’s perception of the severity of each year’s flu strain. Based on a potential vaccine shortage, what the State of Washington has done is simply look at the risks, comparing the risk to this sub-set of no flue vaccine use versus the risk of receiving a thimersal-bearing vaccine. I do not see how the actions of the State of Washington have contributed to a shortage of flu vaccine.

    You could look at this differently, specifically that the State of Washington actually was taking a bold action by looking at the science and making a decision, as was done in Delaware and other states, that the risk of influenza to non-vaccinated pregnant women and young children outweighs the potential risk of thimerosal-bearing vaccines. Whether appropriate or not, there exists a general public concern about the use of thimerosal-bearing vaccines. One might suggest that the public has implemented their own version of the precautionary principle, deciding that their view of perceived risk does not warrant the use of thimerosal-bearing vaccines. As long as this perception exists and alternatives are available, I think it is appropriate that governmental agencies are responsive to this reality and ensure that the largest numbers of individuals are protected from influenza – through the use of a combination of both types of vaccines.

    It seems to me that the problem is more appropriately one of public perception rather than fraudulent government action. Why did you not take the general public to task for continuing to believe that thimerosal-bearing vaccines are not safe? There is a simple reason. In the same way that the environmental community by reflex blames business rather than the public for many environmental issues, you have taken the conservative short-cut of pointing first at government action as the “problem.” Blaming the public is never a winning argument for advocacy organizations like yours.

    In the end, until there is a change in public perception, I am hard pressed to see how the State of Washington has erred in this case and why you have implicated government use of the precautionary principle as central to your concerns.

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