→ David Gee, former European Environmental Agency senior adviser: The ‘precautionary principle’ is under-used and should be re-championed

Alexia Barakou

Mr Gee is a noted authority in, and champion of, what’s known as “the precautionary principle”,  a policy related to the environment, health and food safety that aims to prevent harm before a hazard has come into existence.

The precautionary principle is taken so seriously that its terms are detailed in an article of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, one of two treaties the form the constitutional base of the EU.

That makes it rather important EU law and, as Mr Gee explains, there are dozens of cases where it has been successfully applied. For instance in the the EU’s ban on antibiotics in animal feed, which was designed to make the animals grow fatter faster. The ban is to help limit antibiotic resistance in humans.

The pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer took the European Commission to court on the ban, arguing there wasn’t sufficient evidence. However, the Commission won, with the court saying this was precisely the sort of case the precautionary principle was designed for.

In another instance, the European Court of Justice applied the precautionary principle to Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease) which affected British cattle herds in the 1990s and led to tens of thousands being slaughtered.

To use the words of the European Court of Justice in the BSE case, the precautionary principle justifies public policy action to limit potential harm before “the reality and seriousness of the harm becomes fully apparent”.

You’d be forgiven for thinking the body of evidence on the risk posed by electromagnetic fields and radio frequencies would be sufficient to trigger the principle on 5G. But not so, says David Gee.

In his interview with Investigate Europe, Mr Gee addresses this question. First though, we asked him why the European Environmental Agency had issued a warning on possible risks of electromagnetic fields in 2007, when he was research director?

David Gee: “For two reasons. We had drawn quite some attention with our first report “Late lessons from early warnings”  in 2001. It was historical in that it looked back on past cases such as asbestos and BSE [mad cow disease] and stayed clear of emerging issues.

“After that we were challenged to do some work on emerging issues. This took us on the edge of our mandate, because the EEA isn’t a risk assessment body. The EEA just gathers and produces data, information and knowledge for policy makers to use.

“In 2007 we referred to EMF as an issue of concern because of the evidence that was available up to then, which were two epidemiological studies […that] both came to the same findings […], namely gliomas [brain tumours]  at the side of the head.

Mr Gee says another EU research project pointed to some cellular damage caused by EMF and that while animal evidence was quite weak back in 2007, given the nature of the harm, the millions of people exposed and the extra sensitivity of children, the EEA’s early warning in 2007 was justified.

David Gee: “In 2011 the evidence got even stronger, even though the animal evidence was still weak, which led the International Agency for Research into Cancer (IARC) to classify RF as possibly carcinogenic, 2B. 

“Leaping forward to 2018, [two] studies* both show clear evidence of cancer in animals. So, unfortunately, our early warnings in 2007 and 2011 weren’t illegitimate. We hoped then we would be wrong, but ever since the evidence has gotten stronger.

If IARC [International Agency for Research on Cancer] would review the evidence now, it would come out as a category 2A, probably carcinogenic or even a 1, carcinogenic.”

“The advice back in 2007 was to apply precaution, as a minimum not to hold a mobile phone right next to your head and don’t give mobile phones to children under 16.”

However, says David Gee, currently there is a powerful paradigm which holds that biological harm from electromagnetic fields can only occur if the energy is sufficient to generate a thermal reaction – i.e. heating. This way of thinking, he says, is now obsolete.

David Gee: “We know that cells in the body talk to each other through two systems, chemical and electrical messages. It shouldn’t be that hard to understand that […] a short pulse of outside interference in that conversation between cells will scramble that conversation.”

The precautionary principle: Rushing in where angels (…and some scientists) fear to tread

Investigate Europe: Why are policy makers hesitant to use the precautionary principle?

David Gee: “Firstly, the establishment is very science-minded and the concept of the precautionary principle doesn’t resonate well with scientists. But it wasn’t designed for scientists. It was designed for policymakers to justify action when the evidence isn’t very strong or when there are high stakes on whether policymakers act or not. Many policymakers are close to scientists.

“They usually consult scientists in the risk assessment phase and sometimes get contaminated with the scientific point of view and therefore don’t go beyond that by asking themselves the question “What will we do now? Act or not?”. That’s the risk management aspect of policy making and that’s where the precautionary principle comes in.”

The second reason for not applying the precautionary principle, says Mr Gee, is that it restrains profitable economic activity without the need to demonstrate potential peril “beyond all reasonable doubt”.

David Gee: “Policy makers often want to wait for that “beyond all reasonable doubt” strength of evidence but, by definition, that comes too late. Once the evidence of harm is given, the harm is done.

“The precautionary principle is very underused by the European Commission as a basis for policy. It needs to be re-championed!

* See details of the US National Toxicology Program and Italian Ramazzini Institute studies in separate boxes.