Lois Gibbs (inset) became an activist in the 1970s when her community, Love Canal, New York, became a national symbol of toxic pollution. Much of the town is still off-limits.© Galen Rowell / Corbis
"The handwriting is on the wall," says Peter Montague, the director of the Environmental Research Foundation and one of the authors of the "Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle," drafted in 1998 at a groundbreaking environmental health conference in Wisconsin. "The current risk-assessment approach has never worked," he says. "We will get to a precautionary world, sooner or later."
For some context on the BESAFE campaign, go back to the 1950s, when the Hooker Chemical Company, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, dumped 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals into the Love Canal waste site near Niagara Falls, New York, covered it with dirt, and sold the land to the Board of Education for a dollar. Homebuilding in the area also began in the 1950s.
Twenty years later, Lois Gibbs was raising her family in Love Canal, when she discovered that her son’s elementary school was located on top of a chemical waste site leaking dioxin, among other poisons. Through trial and error, she organized her neighbors into the Love Canal Homeowners Association and led a successful battle demanding corporate and government accountability to clean up and relocate Love Canal residents. A modern David vs. Goliath myth was born.
Then came A Civil Action, the book and movie based on a devastating case in Woburn, Massachusetts, in which children developed leukemia after drinking city well water contaminated with chemical solvents. It was followed by the celebrated film about Erin Brockovich, a single mother of three who in the mid 1980s found out that Pacific Gas & Electric was dumping millions of gallons of cancer-causing chemicals into ponds in Hinkley, California.
For Gibbs, the enduring message is this: Government and industry don’t always act to protect citizens from environmental hazards. The core problem, she says, is that regulations governing use and disposal of toxic chemicals are fundamentally flawed. "As a society, we begin with this toxic thing and say: "How much can we put in the environment before somebody is harmed?"" Gibbs says. "This risk-assessment approach means there is a subset of our society that will always be sacrificed. And there is no sense that there is something else we can do."
That’s why the BESAFE precautionary campaign, she says, represents nothing less than a paradigm shift for American environmental policy. "It asks: "Is there something out there that is safe? If there isn"t, what is the least-toxic material available? Are there innovative safe technologies we should develop?""
In Europe, it’s already the law. In the U.S., it’s just beginning to be put into practice. Local jurisdictions in Massachusetts and Maine, for example, have passed ordinances banning pesticide use in schools unless deemed absolutely necessary. In Seattle, city officials recently adopted a procurement policy encouraging toxin-free products.
To get more of these local precautionary ordinances passed and to create a big tent campaign, the Environmental Health Alliance is building partnerships with local, regional and national groups. CHEJ has also developed 40 brochures explaining how the precautionary approach translates into different issues such as green building, clean computers, landfills and children’s environmental health. CHEJ’s Green Flags program encourages parents, teachers and kids to get involved in making their school environment- and kid-friendly.
"We are looking forward as always to partnering with Gibbs to empower people to make change," says Lynn Thorpe of Clean Water Action, part of the Environmental Health Alliance. After launching the public education campaign in seven targeted states this fall, the Environmental Health Alliance hopes to obtain one million BESAFE platform signatures in time to present to the new Presidential administration in 2005. "We hope it’s a new administration," observes Gibbs.
Environmental justice organizations such as CHEJ are blazing the precautionary trail, says Montague. "The larger mainstream environmental groups are still committed to a "my-expert-is-better-than-your-expert" approach," he says. "But environmental justice groups have far less power and can’t win the dueling scientific experts battle."
By focusing on reasonable nontoxic alternatives, says Montague, environmental protection under the precautionary principle "becomes a public debate in which everyone can jump into the democratic process."