Tibbs and the precautionary principle

When a course of action might have a potentially serious impact, one approach is to adopt the precautionary principle

Nan O’s cat, Tibbs, is poorly. Could her new ‘FelineFine’ supplement be to blame? Should Nan O follow the precautionary principle and stop using it, just in case?

Rather than assuming something is safe until proven otherwise, the precautionary principle argues the opposite – that something should be considered potentially harmful unless shown to be safe.

Although the precautionary principle aims to protect us against danger, an excessively ‘safety-first’ approach may have its own drawbacks. For example, we may lose the benefits that a new technology might provide.

With Tibbs the cat, doubts about the safety of FelineFine may persuade us to stop using it. That may stop Tibbs being poisoned, but it might harm her in other ways.

Below, Big Picture talks you through the problems faced when using a medicine of unknown safety.

  1. Tibbs the cat is feeling poorly. Could it be anything to do with her 'FelineFine' vitamin supplement?
  2. Nan O has two options. Ignore the precautionary principle (top) and carry on using FelineFine. There's no evidence to prove that the FelineFine isn't safe. Likewise there's no evidence to prove that it is completely safe. So she could follow the precautionary principle (bottom) and stop using FelineFine.
  3. Ignoring the precautionary principle and using FelineFine could treat Tibbs' vitamin deficiency allowing her to live. But, FelineFine could be harmful and poison Tibbs. Following the precautionary principle would stop Tibbs from being poisoned so she could survive. But without the critical vitamin supplements she could die of vitamin deficiency.

Glen McBeth

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Nanoscience’ in June 2005 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development