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#605 - The Y2K Problem, Part 2, 01-Jul-1998

Y2K is the shorthand name for Year 2000, a computer problem that may
affect both environmental and human health in every industrialized or
industrializing country. Many thousands of operating computers
currently represent the year by two digits: 25 is 1925 and 98 is 1998.
When January 1, 2000 rolls around, these computers will assume 00 means
1900, not 2000, unless their software is fixed. Computers that have
this "Y2K date problem" are called "noncompliant."

If you were born in 1935, a computer this year would determine that
your age is 98-35=63. However, two years from now that same computer
may determine that your age is 00-35=-35. At that point the computer
may stop working, or it may pass this incorrect information on to
others, including other computers.

This seemingly-simple problem has large consequences.

BYTE magazine, a technical computer journal, calls Y2K "a crisis
without precedent in human history."[1] FORTUNE magazine calls it "the
biggest screwup of the computer age"[2] and says it may cost $1
trillion to fix. (The Vietnam War cost half that much, $500 billion.)
The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) --a trade association for
electric utility companies --says the Y2K problem will begin to disrupt
businesses, including electric utilities, a year before the new century
begins: "Major disruptions in technical and business operations could
begin as early as January 1, 1999. Nearly every industry will be
affected," EPRI says.[3]

If the disruptions don't begin January 1, 1999, they may begin July 1,
1999, when fiscal year 2000 begins for 46 out of the 50 states, or on
October 1, 1999, when fiscal year 2000 begins for the federal
government. But most of the problems will probably surface after
midnight December 31, 1999.

Charles Rossetti, commissioner of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service
(IRS), told the WALL STREET JOURNAL April 22, 1998, that Y2K is a
"very, very serious problem." "There's no point in sugarcoating the
problem," he said. "If we don't fix the century-date problem, we will
have a situation scarier than the average disaster movie you might see
on a Sunday night. Twenty-one months from now, there could be 90
million taxpayers who won't get their refunds, and 95% of the revenue
stream of the United States could be jeopardized."[4] Mr. Rossetti went
on to say he is confident that these problems will not occur because
IRS computer experts will prevent them. Critics of IRS are not so sure.

In addition to many thousands of noncompliant computers needing to be
fixed, there are millions of noncompliant "embedded systems" --computer
chips embedded in other equipment such as photocopiers, telephones,
elevators, traffic lights, electric generating plants, and nuclear
missiles --that also need to be fixed or replaced.

The deadline for having everything fixed --December 31, 1999 --is just
over 500 days away, and it is an unusual kind of deadline because it
cannot be ignored or extended. FORTUNE magazine reported April 27,
1998, that, on average, large corporations are only 34% of the way
through the job of making their systems compliant.[2]

Government agencies are doing only slightly better. The Government
Accounting Office (GAO) said in March, 1998, "Time is running out for
solving the Year 2000 problem. Many federal agencies will not be able
to renovate and fully test all of their mission-critical systems and
may face major disruptions in their operations. At the same time,
systems that have been renovated and tested may encounter unanticipated
Year 2000 problems."[6]

The GAO gave examples of what might go wrong:

** The nation's air transportation may face major delays and
disruptions because the airlines may not be able to file flight plans
with the Federal Aviation Administration.

** Taxpayers may not receive timely tax refunds because the Internal
Revenue Service (IRS) may be unable to process their tax returns.

** Payments to veterans and retirees may be delayed or disrupted by the
failure of mission-critical systems supporting the nation's benefit
payments systems. [In other words, people may not receive their social
security or disability checks in a timely fashion.]

GAO reported June 10, 1998, that 24 government agencies are only 40% of
the way toward their goal of Y2K compliance.[7] GAO said it had
published 40 reports on government computers during the past two years:
"The common theme has been that serious vulnerabilities remain in
addressing the federal government's Year 2000 readiness, and that much
more action is needed to ensure that federal agencies satisfactorily
mitigate Year 2000 risks to avoid debilitating consequences." GAO
concluded, "As a result of federal agencies' slow progress, the public
faces the risk that critical services could be severely disrupted by
the Year 2000 computing crisis."

No one knows what will happen as we approach the year 2000. We do know
that many manufacturing processes are dependent upon computers,
especially in the chemical process industries. FORTUNE magazine said
recently, "The precision and interdependence of process controls in
chemical plants, for instance, make a Rube Goldberg fantasy contraption
look simple. Let a single temperature sensor in the complex chain of
measuring instruments go cuckoo because of a year 2000 problem, and
you'll get a product with different ingredients than you need--if it
comes out at all."[2]

Even the nation's defense apparatus could be adversely affected. The
GAO reported June 30 that the U.S. Navy is far behind in fixing its Y2K
problems and concluded, "Failure to address the year 2000 Problem in
time could severely degrade or disrupt the Navy's day-to-day and, more
importantly, mission-critical operations." GAO said the Navy does not
even know how many of its computers have Y2K problems, so it doesn't
know how big the task ahead may be.[8]

Why is this seemingly-simple problem so difficult? Merrill Lynch, the
financial management firm, says there are four reasons:[9]

1. Pervasiveness. Computers that depend on dates are present in every
kind of technology --manufacturing systems, medical equipment,
elevators, telephone switches, satellites, and even automobiles.

2. Interdependence: Computers exchange information among themselves. "A
single uncorrected system can easily spread corrupted data throughout
an organization and even affect external institutions," Merrill Lynch

3. Inconsistency: Computer languages do not store and use dates in a
consistent way. Dates are labeled, stored, and used in different ways
from program to program and even within a single program. Therefore,
identifying and correcting dates requires close inspection of the
computer code line by line.

4. Size: Most large corporations and government agencies use thousands
of programs containing millions of lines of computer code. Each line of
code must be inspected manually and, if necessary, fixed.

There are additional reasons why this is a particularly difficult

** Many business computer programs that run on the largest
("mainframe") computers are written in an obsolete language called
COBOL. COBOL hasn't been taught for 10 years, so there is a distinct
shortage of COBOL programmers.[2,10]

** Indeed, there is a shortage of all programmers to work on Y2K
problems. Swiss Re (a firm that insures insurance companies against
major losses) says, "A total of well over three million programmers
would be needed to solve the millenium [date] problem in the US. In
actual fact there are only around two million of them at present."[11]

** When computer code is re-written, new errors are introduced at an
average rate of one new error in every 14 lines of re-written code.
Thus even "Y2K compliant" code may not work right when the time comes.

Therefore, we believe it is reasonable to conclude that portions of the
nation's critical infrastructure (water, electricity,
telecommunications, and transportation) may be disrupted for a period -
- perhaps a few days, but conceivably longer. Essential government
services may also be disrupted.

We could be entirely wrong. However we believe it is sensible to hope
for the best but prepare for the worst.

Individuals might take precautions to protect their families. They need
water, food, shelter, and a cash reserve.[12] They need paper records
of bank accounts and insurance policies, in case computerized records
are lost. But even more importantly, communities need to begin now to
think about ways to mitigate these problems. All is not lost. Much
trouble can be averted by focused efforts now. Awareness is the first
issue. (A recent survey of 643 individuals found that 38% had never
heard of the Y2K problem. Among the 400 (62%) who HAD heard of it, 80%
said they believed it would be fixed before the year 2000 arrived. This
contrasts with an earlier poll of technology and business executives
charged with fixing Y2K problems: only 17% of them said they thought
the problems would be fixed before the year 2000.)[13] People need to
be told.

Coordinated action is the second issue. People need the resources to
fix their own computers.[1] Third, communities need to think creatively
about ways to help those who are most vulnerable: people who rely on
social security, veterans benefits, and private pensions, for example.
What will happen if their funds are delayed? Local governments,
churches, and civic groups, could begin now to bring communities
together to find ways to avert serious problems that might occur.
Approached properly, Y2K could become a catalyst for positive community
growth and development in the best sense of those words.[14]

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] Edmund X. DeJesus, "Year 2000 Survival Guide," BYTE (July 1998),
pgs. 52-62. Good web sites covering this problem include:
<http://www.webcom.com/~yardeni/y2kbook.html>; <http://www.euy2k.com>;
<http://www.year2000.com>; <http://www.y2ktimebomb.com>;
<http://www.garynorth.com>; <http://www.y2kwomen.com>; and

[2] Gene Bylinsky, "Industry Wakes Up to the Year 2000 Menace," FORTUNE
April 27, 1998, pgs. 163-180. Available on the web:

[3] See <http://year2000.epriweb.com/year2000/ challenge.html>.

[4] Tom Herman, "A Special Summary and Forecast of Federal and State
Tax Developments," WALL STREET JOURNAL April 22, 1998, pg. A1.

[5] Peyman Pejman, "Industry rep voices doubt over federal 2000-
readiness," GOVERNMENT COMPUTER NEWS June 15, 1998. See
try_rep_voices_doubt_over_f.htm> (omit the hyphen).

[6] Joel C. Willemssen and Keith Rhodes, YEAR 2000 COMPUTING CRISIS:
(Washington, D.C.: General Accounting Office, March, 1998). Available
at: <http://www.gao.gov/y2kr.htm>.

(Washington, D.C.: General Accounting Office, June 10, 1998). Available
at: <http://www.gao.gov/y2kr.htm>.

[8] John B. Stephenson and others, DEFENSE COMPUTERS; YEAR 2000
(Washington, D.C.: General Accounting Office, June, 1998). Available
at: <http://www.gao.gov/y2kr.htm>.

[9] See <http://www.ml.com/woml/forum/millen.htm>.

[10] Rajiv Chandrasekaran, "Older Programmers May Fix Future,"
WASHINGTON POST March 2, 1997, pg. A1. See:
mar97/2000.htm> (omit the second hyphen).

[11] See <http://www.swissre.com/download/public/millen-e.pdf>.

[12] See <http://www.y2kwomen.com>. If you need this "how to protect
your family" information sent to you by mail, send us $2.00 to cover
postage and copying; we'll mail you 27 pages of information. Please
mark your envelope Y2K.

[13] Susan Watson [(508) 935-4190] and Karen Fogerty [(508) 935-4091],
"CIO Magazine Study Shows Many Consumers Clueless About Year 2000
Computer Glitch," press release dated June 12, 1998. See
<http://www.cio.com/marketing/releases/y2k_re- lease.html> (omit the

[14] See, for example, Robert Theobald's work on community responses to
Y2K: <http://www.transform.org/transform/tlc/- Resiliency.htm> (omit
the hyphen).

Descriptor terms: computers; chemical plant safety; y2k problem;
merrill lynch; embedded systems; robert theobald; swiss re; cobol;
disaster preparedness;