Human action often imperils both human health and our natural heritage—from wildlife to the global atmosphere. Putting safety first means taking a precautionary approach to decisions that may cause serious, long-term, or irreversible harm. It means evaluating risks and alternatives, and it means preserving options for the future.

A good example of the need to put safety first is how society handles potential dangers in new industrial chemicals. Cascadian industry uses tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals, few of which have been tested for their health effects. Putting safety first with chemicals means assessing products’ consequences before the chemical go on the market.

Some Northwest states are now taking action to phase out toxic flame retardants, for example. Unfortunately, this belated, one-chemical-at-a-time response is just another in a long string of tragic cases—including lead, arsenic, asbestos, DDT, PCBs, dioxins—that demonstrates our failure to look before we leap. By the time the evidence of a compound’s harm is clear, Cascadians have paid the price with their health.

In a “safety first”—or precautionary—approach, manufacturers would be responsible for doing safety tests on a compound before it could be sold. That’s responsible stewardship, and it’s the same philosophy the US and Canadian governments apply to new medicines and food additives.

The same principle applies to stewardship of our natural heritage, where large-scale changes wrought by humans can undermine ecosystem services, such as flood and fire control, on which Cascadia depends.

Take the Selkirk caribou. The sole remaining population of mountain caribou in the 48 contiguous states, the Selkirk herd—with less than 50 remaining individuals—occupies a small area of northeast Washington, northern Idaho, and an adjacent part of British Columbia.

Aggressive logging and development in its range set off an unexpected chain reaction—more young trees, more deer, and the entry of cougars into the area—that now threatens the Selkirks with extinction. A precautionary approach would have protected the herd without anything like the sweeping measures now required.

Related solutions

To put safety first, Cascadia can:

  • Seek innovative reform of chemical regulation
  • Leave wide margins of safety in its large scale conservation plans
  • Expand roadless areas
  • Consider health and safety when planning transportation and land use.
  • Consider impacts on wildlife and natural heritage when managing land. For example, Forest Stewardship Council certification of woodlands can produce harvestable timber in perpetuity, even while safeguarding natural systems. Similarly, healthy wild salmon runs can support commercial fisheries, lucrative sport fisheries and tourism, even while they bolster a vast array of creatures on land and in water.
March 7, 2005