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Ebola exposes the lie of the precautionary principle

By Autry J. Pruitt


One of the more controversial regimes in regulatory circles is referred to as the precautionary principle.  Simply stated, the precautionary principle demands that some product or practice be prohibited if absolute safety cannot be demonstrated.  It’s controversial because it requires that the target of the precautionary principle prove a negative, which is logically impossible.

The precautionary principle is nontheless a key component of the regulatory apparatus of the European Union, and may be applied in the food, chemical and other industry sectors of the EU.  It is also ensconced in environmental policy including the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development in 1992 and similar manifestos.  In the United States, activists have used the precautionary principle to ban shatterproof baby bottles made with bisphenol-A (BPA), and similar bans are sought for everything from certain shampoos to genetically modified foods.

Given that many proponents of the precautionary principle argue for it with an almost evangelical fervor, their silence on the American Ebola outbreak is quizzical.  After all, if they demand we ban certain products that have never been shown to cause human harm (like BPA), one would think these activists would demand implementing the precautionary principle in fighting a disease with a 70% mortality rate. One would be wrong.

As the Centers for Disease Control, hospitals and other public health authorities try to wrap their arms around Ebola, the precautionary principle is nearly impossible to find despite the enormous threat posed by this disease. Consider the way in which Ebola is spread.  The conventional wisdom says the disease is transmitted only by direct contact with bodily fluids.  But what happens if the virus mutates into something that can be transmitted through airborne contact?

The precautionary principle suggests that preparing for such a possibility might require revised protocols for ventilation at medical facilities, special respirators and breathing apparatus for medical staff, air-pressurized access points to areas housing Ebola patients and more. Certainly a few facilities are equipped in such a manner but the overwhelming majority are not.

We’re told that such a mutation is “highly unlikely,” but we’ve heard that before. Literally. The White House said in September that an Ebola outbreak in the U.S. was also “highly unlikely.”  Three weeks later, Thomas Eric Duncan was dead of Ebola in Dallas and two of the people treating him have contracted the disease.

Adding to the unease is the fact that Ebola is classified as an RNA virus and as such, is more prone to mutation than other types of viruses.  It’s certainly something that should be taken into account and raises legitimate questions as to whether the precautionary principle is an appropriate response.

If ever there was a time for applying the precautionary principle, this is it. The pernicious nature of Ebola cries for such action yet we’re not seeing it. It is this absence of the precautionary principle that reveals it as a fraud.  It is not, nor has it ever been, a regime for ensuring public safety. Were that the case, it would have been implemented quickly and broadly in the battle against Ebola.  Instead, it has been ignored

The resulting situation is thick with irony. The precautionary principle was designed and implemented by the left to impede innovation, but in the one instance in which it might actually do some good, the Obama administration has sidelined it. The actions and inaction we’ve seen thus far in the American Ebola outbreak prove the precautionary principle is a lie that is little more than a political tool.  It has nothing to do with public health and safety, and everything to do with ideology.

Autry Pruitt is a syndicated radio host and owner of UrRepublic. Follow him on Twitter @Autry.