Reactionary vs. Precautionary Approach; What Can You Do?

President's Cancer Panel ReportIn April 2010, the “President’s Cancer Panel” issued a report entitled, Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk.

The cancer panel report addresses many cancer causing agents, from toxic chemicals, to sunlight, to radon, to ionizing radiation, and yes, to non-ionizing radiation.

The report recommends that a precautionary, prevention-oriented approach be taken to replace our current reactionary approach to regulating environmental contaminants in which human harm must generally be proven before action is taken to reduce or eliminate exposure.

What can you do to help?  The report recommends “self-advocacy.”  Each person can become an active voice in his or her community.  To a greater extent than many realize, individuals have the power to affect public policy by letting policymakers know that they strongly support environmental cancer research and measures that will reduce or remove from the environment those toxic agents that are known or suspected carcinogens or endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

Since the document is not copyrighted (as a government report),  several selected quotations from the document will be presented in order to highlight its relevance to radiofrequency (RF) radiation.  Think of what follows as the “cliff notes” version of the report.


“Conveniences of modern life — automobile and airplane travel, dry cleaning, potable tap water, electricity, and cellular communications, to name a few — have made daily life easier for virtually all Americans.  Some of these conveniences, however, have come at a considerable price to the environment and human health, and the true health impact of others is unconfirmed.”

“Opportunities for eliminating or minimizing cancer-causing and cancer-promoting environmental exposures must be acted upon to protect all Americans, but especially children.”

“Weak laws and regulations, inefficient enforcement, regulatory complexity, and fragmented authority allow avoidable exposures to known or suspected cancer-causing and cancer-promoting agents to continue and proliferate in the workplace and the community.  Existing regulations, and the exposure assessments on which they are based, are outdated in most cases, and many known or suspected carcinogens are completely unregulated.  Enforcement of most existing regulations is poor.  In virtually all cases, regulations fail to take multiple exposures and exposure interactions into account.  In addition, regulations for workplace environments are focused more on safety than on health.

Industry has exploited regulatory weaknesses, such as government’s reactionary (rather than precautionary) approach to regulation.”

Reactionary versus Precautionary Approaches to Regulation

“Even where reference doses and exposure limits have been established, a number of environmental health scientists and advocates believe that some exposure levels deemed safe by regulators are in fact too high.  They maintain that exposures far below the reference dose are causing harm and in some cases, inducing cancer development.  Moreover, they believe that some agents cause harm at very low doses that is not manifested at higher doses and that regulatory prudence is indicated until potential effects such as these are better understood.

However, the prevailing regulatory approach in the United  States is reactionary in that it:

  • Requires incontrovertible evidence of harm before preventive action is taken.
  • Places the burden on the public to show that a given chemical is harmful.
  • Does not consider potential health and environmental impacts when designing new technologies.
  • Discourages public participation in decision making about the control of hazards and the introduction of new technologies, chemicals, or other exposures.”

“An alternative approach to regulation that supports primary cancer and other disease prevention is precautionary.  [emphasis added]  In 1998, a conference of international environmental scientists, scholars, activists, treaty negotiators, and others convened to discuss implementation of the Precautionary Principle asserted in a consensus statement that ‘when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.’  The core tenets of the Precautionary Principle are:

  • Taking preventive action in the face of uncertainty.
  • Shifting the burden of proof to proponents of an activity.
  • Exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions.
  • Including public participation in decision making.

According to one speaker, precaution should be a key component of a sound approach to managing and communicating risk and uncertainty about risk, but should be applied selectively.  Specifically, when there is no evidence of risk, precaution is not warranted and no action is needed.  If confidence exists that there is a hazard, prevention is called for, not precaution.  However, when credible evidence exists that there may be a hazard, a precautionary approach should be adopted and alternatives should be sought to remove the potential hazard and still achieve the same social benefit. [emphasis added]  Such an approach acknowledges the uncertainty of identifying cancer risks in complex, poorly understood environmental systems.  The determination of when sufficient evidence exists for preventive action often depends on context and the consequences of inaction or acting in error.”

“Those who support a precautionary approach to the regulation of environmental agents emphasize that while at a specific point in time average individual risk from exposure to one or more carcinogens may be low, health problems due to these exposures may develop over time.   When populations exposed to the same carcinogen(s) develop related health problems, the result may be both higher health care costs at the individual level and potentially significant public health issues and societal costs.

Participants at the Panel’s meetings suggested that precautionary approaches may encourage innovation because once a chemical or other agent is identified as potentially hazardous, efforts to identify safer alternatives are likely to follow.”

Environmental Exposures Related to Modern Lifestyles

“Considerable disagreement exists within the scientific community regarding potential harm due to RF exposure from cellular phones and other wireless devices, and many of the available studies have been interpreted quite differently by researchers on both sides of the issue.  As one speaker noted, data on the long-term use of newer equipment still are relatively sparse, and it may be several years before enough data accumulate to reach informed conclusions about the harm cell phones, cell phone towers, and other wireless devices/networks may cause.

Thus, while considerable research has been conducted on cancer risk due to RF from cell phones, cell phone towers, and other wireless devices, the available data are neither consistent nor conclusive, and a mechanism of RF-related cancer has yet to be identified.”

“In the face of uncertainty about RF energy and cell phone-related cancer risks, some researchers, several countries (Germany, France, Austria, United Kingdom, Russia), and the European Environment Agency have taken a precautionary stance regarding cell phone use, particularly by children.”

“Those who believe RF and ELF EMR are harmful maintain that U.S. and international organizations are denying a substantial threat to future population health and failing to protect the public. … All emphasize the need for further research in this area.”


A precautionary, prevention-oriented approach should replace current reactionary approaches to environmental contaminants in which human harm must be proven before action is taken to reduce or eliminate exposure.  [emphasis added]  Though not applicable in every instance, this approach should be the cornerstone of a new national cancer prevention strategy that emphasizes primary prevention, redirects accordingly both research and policy agendas, and sets tangible goals for reducing or eliminating toxic environmental exposures implicated in cancer causation.”

“Methods for long‑term monitoring and quantification of electromagnetic energy exposures related to cell phones and wireless technologies are urgently needed given the escalating use of these devices by larger and younger segments of the population and the higher radiofrequencies newer devices produce.”   [emphasis added]

“Adults and children can reduce their exposure to electromagnetic energy by wearing a headset when using a cell phone, texting instead of calling, and keeping calls brief.”    [emphasis added]

“Self-Advocacy:  Each person can become an active voice in his or her community.  [emphasis added]  To a greater extent than many realize, individuals have the power to affect public policy by letting policymakers know that they strongly support environmental cancer research and measures that will reduce or remove from the environment toxics that are known or suspected carcinogens or endocrine-disrupting chemicals.  Individuals also can influence industry by selecting non-toxic products and, where these do not exist, communicating with manufacturers and trade organizations about their desire for safer products.”

President Panel Table

If you prefer to review the entire “President’s Cancer Panel” report yourself, it may be found at the following link:

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