From general policy to legal rule: Aspirations and limitations of the precautionary principle

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The rapid spread of the precautionary principle (PP) demonstrates the need to explicitly address the role of precaution in environmental decision making. Unfortunately, the PP in its current form is limited by the vagueness of, and variations in, the many formulations of the PP. This ambiguity in the meaning of the PP would not be so serious if the PP were limited to a general aspirational policy, but in every jurisdiction that has adopted the PP it has been transformed rapidly into a binding legal rule. As a legal rule, the ambiguity of the PP results in arbitrary application by regulatory agencies and reviewing courts and limits the capability of reviewing courts to perform their function in overseeing agency actions. To improve the explicit application of precaution, we must go beyond the current form of the PP and attempt to define the factors that weigh in favor of more or less precaution for specific risks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1799-1803
Number of pages5
JournalEnvironmental health perspectives
Issue number14
StatePublished - Nov 2003


  • Environmental policy
  • Law precautionary principle
  • Risk management

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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