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The Precautionary Principle, Epidemiology and the Ethics of Delay

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Ethics tells us: do good and do no harm and invokes the norms of justice, equity and respect for autonomy in protecting and promoting health and well-being. The Precautionary Principle, a contemporary re-definition of Bradford Hill's case for action, gives us a common sense rule for doing good by preventing harm to public health from delay: when in doubt about the presence of a hazard, there should be no doubt about its prevention or removal. It shifts the burden of proof from showing presence of risk to showing absence of risk, aims to do good by preventing harm, and subsumes the upstream strategies of the DPSEEA (Driving Forces Pressure Stress Exposure Effect Action) model and downstream strategies from molecular epidemiology for detection and prevention of risk. The Precautionary Principle has emerged because of the ethical import of delays in detection of risks to human health and the environment. Ethical principles, the Precautionary Principle, the DPSEEA model and molecular epidemiology all imply re-emphasizing epidemiology's classic rĂ´le for early detection and prevention. Delays in recognizing risks from past exposures and acting on the findings (e.g., cigarette smoking and lung cancer, asbestos, organochlorines and endocrine disruption, radiofrequency, raised travel speeds) were examples of failures that were not only scientific, but ethical, since they resulted in preventable harm to exposed populations. These may delay results from, among other things, external and internal determinants of epidemiologic investigations of hazard and risk, including misuse of tests of statistical significance. Furthermore, applying the Precautionary Principle to ensure justice, equity, and respect for autonomy raises questions concerning the short-term costs of implementation to achieve long-term goals and the principles that guide compensation.
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Keywords: Precautionary Principle; delay; epidemiology; ethics

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Unit of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Public Health and Community Medicine, Jerusalem, Israel

Publication date: 01 February 2005

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