NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Don't Worry About Over-Rated Hazards

August 27, 2002

Despite living healthier and longer lives, and enjoying more pleasures and conveniences than ever before, Americans are often prey to unwarranted worries, observers note. Many of these worries spring from environmental warnings, say observers, and being scared affects their ability to think realistically and use good judgment.

Often all the worrying turns out to be for naught, researchers say.

  • It took an $8 million federal study to calm fears that breast cancer could be linked to environmental causes among women in Long Island, N.Y. -- and, indeed, no scientific study has ever actually confirmed such a link.
  • Those worried about nuclear power might do well to consider that the known cost to lives from solar power, and gas and oil, still far exceeds those attributed to nuclear power.
  • Many people are far more frightened of air travel than they are of driving, which -- mile for mile -- presents a far greater risk.

It is not possible to anticipate, regulate and control every risk, and frequently trying to regulate risks is a bad investment. According to the Office of Management and Budget:

  • For each premature death averted, the law that lists wood preserving chemicals as hazardous waste costs $5.7 trillion.
  • Exposure limits on formaldehyde cost $86.2 billion per death averted.

For a detailed discussion of how best to evaluate environmental threats, there is a new book: "How Much Risk? A Guide to Understanding Environmental Health Hazards," by Inge F. Goldstein and Martin Goldstein, published by the Oxford University Press.

Source: Jane E. Brody, "Risks and Realities: In a World of Hazards, Worries Are Often Misplaced," New York Times, August 20, 2002.


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