To build an environment that truly supports health & wellness, we need to recognize that we sometimes need to make decisions before health impacts or safety concerns can be definitively proven or disproven. Where human health is involved, it is difficult or impossible to study impacts that involve multiple risk factors or may develop over long periods of time — some environmental health problems can take years, decades, or even generations to manifest, and it can be difficult to link them to one single cause.
The precautionary principle guides us in situations that involve substantial risks to the environment or human health. In some ways, it’s just a more refined statement of the old truism that ‘It’s better to be safe than sorry.’ Sadly, too many decisions today are based on short-term analyses of potential gain balanced against potential harm. The precautionary principle simply tells us that when the risks are large, we need to err on the side of safety, even when the harm has not yet been conclusively proven.
In schools this plays out in many ways. For example, does the food served in school support environmental & individual health? It is clear that the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers & pesticides may cause irreversible harm to the health of communities and those who eat the food — but there is no final, absolute proof that it is harmful. Ditto for GMOs [genetically modified organisms]. In another area, the use of synthetic turf athletic fields poses multiple risks that could take decades to show up; common sense tells us that it is dangerous to permit their use unless it can be proven that they are not harmful.
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