State Finds Choosing "Precaution" Over Science on Vaccines Creates Significant Health Risks

February 1, 2013

The Department of Health explains that Washington state law limits the amount of thimerosal "as a precaution." In other words, the state is ignoring the science in favor of an amorphous standard of "precaution." What is the result of that precaution? Selecky’s agency goes on to explain:

Increased demand and disease has led to thimerosal-free flu vaccine being especially limited. This could stop children younger than three and pregnant women who want the vaccine from getting it. Suspending the thimerosal limits law removes barriers so people can choose to be protected against influenza. Pregnant women and children under three are at high risk for serious complications if they get the flu. Providers and patients now have the opportunity to use other types of flu vaccine instead of not vaccinating at all.

In other words, the limits on thimerosal contributed to a situation where those most at risk from influenza could not receive the necessary vaccination. Politicians in Olympia passed a law that created more risk than it avoided because it ignored the science in favor of a purely emotional precautionary standard.

What have we learned from this experience? Sadly, not much.

State Senator Marilyn Chase has introduced legislation this month that would expand the "precautionary" standard to all environmental policy. SB 5255 would allow state agencies to take action even when the science is not available. The bill says:

...it is the intent of this act that all agencies should implement environmental quality and public health policies through a precautionary approach, meaning that where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage to human health or to the environment, the lack of full scientific certainty about cause and effect may not be viewed as sufficient reason for the state to postpone cost-effective measures to prevent the damage.

The clear intent of the legislation is to put politics ahead of science. If science can't deliver a clear answer, politics will. Of course there is no standard for precaution, so any time a regulator decides there isn't enough evidence, he or she can simply decide to take an action in the name of precaution.

Substituting the amorphous standard of precaution for science and ignoring the consequences of "precautionary" regulation in favor of feared, but unsubstantiated, impacts is why President Obama's first regulatory czar called the precautionary principle "literally incoherent."

During this influenza outbreak, we are already seeing the costs of choosing precaution over science.