Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#195 - Risk Assessment -- Part 2: No Person Shall Be... Deprived Of Life..., 21-Aug-1990

The 5th amendment to the Constitution of the United States says, "No
person shall be... deprived of life, liberty or property without due
process of law." Before the state can execute you, you are supposed to
have your day in court, to be judged for your crimes (if any) by a jury
of your peers. An execution without due process is a murder.

Despite these important protections in our Constitution, murder of
innocent Americans is slowly but surely becoming acceptable because of
the increasing use of a technique called "risk assessment."

As we saw last week, risk assessment had its origins in the U.S. Food
and Drug Administration's (FDA) 1954 decision to abandon the fight to
keep pesticidal poisons out of the American food supply. Instead, FDA
decided in 1954 to allow (and thus legitimize) certain amounts of
poisons in our food. Initially these amounts were called "safe" but as
knowledge grew, scientists came to realize that, at least in the case
of cancer-causing poisons, someone, somewhere would be harmed if any
amount appeared in the nation's food supply. After that realization,
"acceptable" amounts were set on the basis of predictions of how many
people would be killed. Usually the official goal was to kill no more
than one-in-a-million people, though sometimes onein-a-hundred-thousand
is deemed acceptable. This technique is now called "risk assessment,"
and today it is so widely practiced that some people consider it the
only possible way to think about such matters, which of course isn't
true. (Another time we'll discuss alternatives to risk assessment.) Now
there are individuals (indeed, whole companies) who do nothing but
write "risk assessments" for money; sometimes they work for polluters,
sometimes they work for governments, but always they are helping
establish how many people will (and, by implication, should) die. Our
government now routinely issues licenses (called permits) that allow
people to kill other people by putting poisons into our common air and
water supplies, and these licenses are based on risk assessments.

As we noted above, the number one-in-a-million is typically called a
"negligible risk" or an "acceptable risk." If you want some dangerous
project to be licensed, you hire someone to write a risk assessment
"proving" that the risks to the public from your project will not
exceed one-in-a-million. This means that the person writing the risk
assessment is reasonably sure that your project will actually kill no
more than one person out of every million persons affected by the
project. (There's a lot of guesswork in such estimates.)

An important point to recognize is that risk assessment does not
predict individual risk; risks are not equally distributed. So if a
million people live within range of, say, an incinerator smoke stack
spewing carcinogens, the one-in-a-million risk will not be evenly
distributed among the affected population. Because of wind patterns,
topography, location of residences, individual susceptibility, and
other individual health conditions, some people are much more likely to
be killed than others.

But let's get specific. The National Academy of Sciences calculates
that pesticides are responsible for 2.1% of all U.S. cancer deaths each
year; there were 461,520 cancer deaths in the U.S. in 1985; 2.1% of
this is 9692 deaths. So government decisions to license pesticides over
the last few decades have killed roughly 10,000 Americans each year,
according to official estimates. Since there are 245 million Americans,
we can calculate that pesticides kill (by giving cancer to) 40 out of
every million citizens each year. (You see, the one-in-a-million
decisions accumulate as each new one-in-a-million risk is added to the
environment. A typical risk assessment does not consider these
cumulative impacts of many individual decisions.)

Why do we let our government issue licenses to kill 10,000 citizens
each year? We let it happen because the victims die anonymously. They
are faceless. We don't know exactly who they are.

But what if the names and addresses of the victims were known? If the
names of the victims were known, no one would dispute that this is
murder. And, "Why should it matter that contemporary 'negligible risk'
victims are known only in number and not by name? We do not excuse the
killer who shoots into a large crowd of strangers because he doesn't
know his victims' names and he kills only a few people or even just
one. Why, then, do we tolerate those who spray the crowd with poisons
rather than bullets? Is it not still murder? The corpses lie just as
dead." We are quoting Paul Merrell and Carol Van Strum (see our last
paragraph, below.)

We allow our regulatory officials to get away with killing large
numbers of us because we accept their rhetoric in which they claim not
to kill us, but only to impose "risks" on us. And because we accept
many risks each day (such as driving our car), they argue we should
accept new, chemical risks without complaint. If we accept the
substantial risk of driving an automobile, how can we logically object
to a tiny (one-in-a-million) added risk from chemical contamination of
our food or water?

"A better question is, why should we be so naive? These offenders do
not impose 'risks' upon a crowd; they deliberately execute individual
human beings in the name of profit," Merrell and Van Strum argue. They
actually kill real people by their decisions, not merely impose
abstract "risk." And it is important to note that the informed consent
of the victims is not obtained.

A few years ago, nationwide fear and outrage erupted when a small
number of people died after a few Tylenol bottles were spiked with
cyanide.

Courts have declared that it is murder for a wife to kill her husband
by lacing his chili with parathion (a pesticide), so how can we excuse
those who authorize the poisoning of the entire nation's food supply?
Is it sufficient justification for murder that only a few will die? If
so, how can we justify punishing the Tylenol killer or the wife who
murders only one husband?

We need to recognize risk assessment (for pesticides and other
hazardous chemicals) for what it is: evidence of premeditated murder.
It documents the intent of regulators and polluters to sacrifice
individual lives on the altar of profit. The person who writes the risk
assessment is an accessory to a felony. The concept of 'negligible
risk' is tolerated only because of the anonymity of its intended
victims. If our science improved and we could publish the names and
addresses of intended victims in the newspaper, risk assessment would
immediately be recognized as murder and would cease, you can be sure.

Without dead bodies, it may be impossible to prosecute decision-makers
and those who conduct risk assessments, but it still may be possible to
prosecute them for conspiracy to commit murder, and for attempted
murder, both of which are felonies. Such prosecutions will succeed when
this 'negligible' form of murder ceases to be acceptable to prosecutors
and to the public. In the meantime, citizens can speak out, reject risk
assessment, and call it what it is: premeditated murder of innocent
citizens.

Most of the material for this week's newsletter was taken from Paul
Merrell and Carol Van Strum, "Negligible Risk or Premeditated Murder?"
JOURNAL OF PESTICIDE REFORM Vol. 10 (Spring, 1990), pgs. 20-22. For
years, Carol and Paul have been leading, and supporting, the fight to
restrict the use of herbicides and other poisons in the northwestern
U.S. Their most recent book is THE POLITICS OF PENTA (Seattle, WA:
Greenpeace Penta Campaign [4649 Sunnyside Avenue North, Seattle, WA
98103; (206) 632-4326; 148 pgs., $10], about the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency's failure to regulate pentachlorophenol--and about
the hopelessness of "regulation" as a solution to toxics problems;
prevention is the only way. They offer many important publications on
pesticides and dioxins through Alder-Hill Associates, 7493 East Five
Rivers Road, Tidewater, OR 97390; (503) 528-7151. You will also want to
subscribe to the thoughtful and informative quarterly JOURNAL OF
PESTICIDE REFORM, P.O. Box 1393, Eugene, OR 97440; $15 for 4 issues and
well worth it. Hats off to Mary O'Brien who has just ended an
outstanding six-year tenure as editor of JPR.

--Peter Montague

=====

Descriptor terms: risk assessment; pesticides; carol van strum; paul
merrell; mary o'brien; fda; mortality; health statistics; cancer;