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Why is risk controversial?

Cadmium is a very useful industrial metal, but in the United States during the last few years a bitter bureaucratic struggle has erupted over how to regulate the risks associated with processing it. According to an article in The Wall Street Journal, "The U. S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates 14 workers a year will die of lung cancer and dozens more will develop kidney disease unless factories reduce cadmium dust and fumes. A White House office is fighting proposed regulatory change as unnecessary, as are the cadmium industry and the Vice President's Council on Competitiveness. Each side claims that science supports its view and accuses the other side of playing politics. And each side uses the same studies of the health risks of cadmium to justify its conclusions. This is the bizarre world of risk analysis."

This latest chapter in the regulatory management of cadmium in the United States stretches over a period of five years. The bureaucratic struggle emerged into open view in late 1989, when economists at the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs launched an attack on OSHA's health risk estimates, a calculated move that was clearly part of the administration's political agenda for deregulation." So bitter did the ensuing interagency warfare become that a medical specialist working for OSHA sought and won the protection of Congress in order to keep from being fired! The first sallies were over the interpretation of toxicology data and extrapolations from animal studies to assumed adverse human health effects - a very familiar theme in this type of story.

Then industry lobbyists got involved, flooding other government agencies with analyses of cadmium's economic benefits, and even claiming that the regulation of cadmium might harm national security, since it is used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. At the time of writing OSHA had not yet promulgated a safety standard for occupational exposure to cadmium; as the agency proceeds to do so, it is under White House instruction to consider the impact of its standard on the "international competitiveness" of U. S. industry.

The cadmium struggle is just one episode among many in the overt politicization of risk assessment in the United States during the Reagan and Bush administrations. Former President Bush's Council on Competitiveness (then chaired by former Vice President Dan Quayle) proposed to set up a group of scientists under its bureaucratic control to oversee the assessment of risk by all other government agencies. An article in The New York Times reported that a plan drafted by the council also called for "changes in the basic scientific assumptions and mathematical models that agencies now use to determine the risk of a compound to human health." Few experts would disagree that those assumptions and models ought to be rigorously reviewed and challenged by scientific authorities and revised where necessary; equally few experts ought to be under the misapprehension that any such exercise conducted under the above-mentioned auspices would have very much to do with the disinterested pursuit of truth.

Why does the process of assessing and managing health and environmental risks often give rise to such bitter controversy? Much ink has been spilled without profit on this subject, especially by some engineers and other technical experts who profess to be astounded and dismayed at public attitudes, for example, the public's alleged inability to understand the simplest explanations of low-probability risks and its equal obtuseness in overestimating their adverse consequences.

Involuntary Risks

But common public attitudes towards involuntary risks - where choices made by a larger collectivity, such as the siting of a waste treatment facility, are imposed upon individuals in a specific locality - are really not so difficult to comprehend. The simplest and best explanation is that people believe - and with good reason - that under these circumstances they cannot control their exposure to the chance of uncompensated losses, in part because the experts tell them that there are large uncertainties in the estimates. In the spheres of environmental and health risks, "loss" means primarily adverse health effects as well as death, but also stress and anxiety; threats to family income (primarily through illness) and property, especially the equity in the family home; and finally the loss of "everything" in catastrophic accidents. And in addition to the fear of actual deterioration in health or quality of life, loss can include just a growing insecurity as new information about potential adverse effects from various technologies circulates through the media.

Exposure to involuntary risks often is the result of accidental factors - such as the pattern of residential housing - and is very unevenly distributed among the population; thus while "society" as a whole benefits from an activity such as toxic chemical production, for example, some fraction of the population living near the plant bears a disproportionate share of the resultant risk. This is the rational core of the NIMBY ("not in my backyard") syndrome, which is often criticized but is in fact a very sensible public reaction to the prospect of unevenly distributed risk. In such cases the questions of who ought to be responsible for the elevated level of risk, and what steps should be taken to mitigate or compensate for it, are very lively ones indeed.

The dominant institutions in our society, which are usually the proponents of projects leading to the citizen's exposure to involuntary risks (arising from new chemicals, power installations, hazardous waste cleanup and the like), are all too often evasive or silent when it comes to indicating who will be responsible should losses to individuals occur as a result of those projects. This pervasive sidestepping of the issue of responsibility provides a perfectly simple and understandable explanation for much of the public's risk-averse attitudes with respect to involuntary risk. Moreover, even when these institutions do communicate with the citizenry, they often emphasize the inevitable uncertainties associated with risk estimates as if those unknown factors were comforting (i.e., most probably nothing bad will happen), not understanding that this information is more likely to increase the citizen's concern. Nonetheless, opponents to risk-taking activity have been characterized as irrational, ignorant, inconsistent, overzealous, mentally ill and victims of a host of other infirmities. Paul Slovic (see Risk Management, March 1992) has been in the forefront of those who urge policymakers to understand the rational basis of the public perception of risk, but there is still a long way to go before this point is adequately appreciated by professional risk managers.

It is easy to see why risk assessment experts who have a sophisticated understanding of probability theory might assume that the general public will always be hopelessly confused about the nature of risk. It has been pointed out that citizens can threaten their own long-term prosperity by being excessively risk-averse and by overestimating the health and environmental risks to which they are involuntarily exposed. This is quite correct. Such public attitudes indeed can be self-defeating, for example, when they lead to calls for the removal of toxic substances (such as asbestos in buildings, hazardous wastes already buried in relatively stable land formations) under circumstances where this act is more likely to increase rather than decrease the overall level of risk.

But this is not the whole story, for it does not explain fully the sources of those pervasive risk-averse attitudes on the part of the public. What has not been appreciated fully to date is that the citizens' overestimation of risk may be in part a defensive measure, a reaction (based on vague intuitions) to the long history - stretching back to the origins of the industrial revolution - of the calculated underassessment of risk by the dominant institutions (industry and governments), in particular the willful neglect of worker exposure to hazardous substances and processes.

The following is a partial list (the full list would be much longer) of products and substances about which there have been notable controversies in the past couple of decades: alachlor, alar, arsenic, asbestos, benzene, biotechnology (engineered organisms), cadmium, captan, chlorophenates (2,4 - D; 2,4,5 - T; pentachlorophenol), dioxins and furans, electromagnetic fields, ethylene dibromide, forest resource management, formaldehyde, hazardous waste treatment, lead, medical devices (breast implants, Dalkon Shield, etc.), mercury, nuclear power generation, pesticides generally, polychlorinated biphenyls, radioactive wastes, radon, tobacco. In many cases of this type, there was an inadequate scientific risk assessment at the time when the public became aware of possible concerns. But what is worse, in some cases as the controversy went on, those in industry and government who were primarily responsible for generating the risk were unable - and occasionally unwilling - to devote sufficient resources to improving the quality of the risk assessments over a long period Of time. And in some by now notorious cases - tobacco use, asbestos, some medical devices - firms deliberately concealed their knowledge of elevated risks for a long time. This is what we mean by the "systematic underassessment of risk."

Voluntary Risks

On the other hand, many individuals voluntarily engage in a number of different kinds of relatively high-risk activity; the quantitative risk assessment for those activities, which is based on very reliable evidence, shows that the level of risk is far higher than what many people find acceptable for involuntary risks. Among the better known are: use of tobacco and other types of psychoactive drugs, both legal and illegal; immoderate use of alcoholic beverages or their misuse under particular unsafe conditions (pregnancy, combined with other drugs, etc.); drinking and driving, as well as driving cars at excessive speed and driving motorcycles and off-road "sport-utility" vehicles; listening to popular music at high decibel levels, with the resultant permanent bearing impairment; engaging in (or failing to take sufficient precautions with) familiar risky recreations such as bicycling, skiing, rock climbing and water sports, as well as oddities such as "bungee jumping"; unnecessary exposure to sexually transmitted diseases by the failure to take elementary safety precautions; ignoring warnings about protecting skin from excessive ultraviolet rays in sunlight; keeping loaded firearms in the home; improper use of domestic and backyard machinery and appliances; and, generally speaking, indulging in unhealthful lifestyles through poor diet and exercise regimes. Due to the long-standing demand for personal insurance, firms in that business have accumulated extensive and reliable data bases for actuarial purposes, and so the level of risk associated with many of these activities is known with a high degree of precision.

What do individuals hope to accomplish by underestimating the frequency and magnitude of such risks in everyday life? Obviously, they hope to maximize personal benefits while also shifting responsibility onto others for whatever losses might occur. Since most such losses would take the form of adverse health effects - death, illness or injury - this is a rather serious matter for nations such as Canada, which have universal health care systems funded largely by general tax revenues. On the individual level, what it means is that the risk-averse segment of the population is compelled to share the losses of the risk-prone, without deriving any of the offsetting benefits. Where such universal, tax-funded entitlement systems do not exist, for example in the United States, presumably losses are controlled by private insurers, which penalize those with a penchant for high-risk personal lifestyles by imposing on them proportionately higher premiums for coverage. In the United States, however, the fondness for civil litigation appears to be motivated in part by attempts by individuals to find an institution with "deep pockets" that can be coerced into sharing liability and responsibility for losses.

In both types of systems, governments and businesses (at least large employers, which often include some health coverage in benefits packages) find health care costs rising continuously, in part from the types of individual risk taking described above. Such costs reduce the amount of public resources available for investment in risk-reduction technologies in other areas and, to the extent that they render that nation's business sector less competitive in global markets, they also reduce the sum total of economic benefits available for other types of consumption. In all probability this situation will not be allowed to go on indefinitely in the face of remorseless increases in health care budgets, and at some point governments will find ways to compel risk-prone individuals to assume a greater share of responsibility for indulging in their favorite sins.

Shifting Responsibility

To summarize, the direct interest that both institutions and individuals have in underestimating risks is manifested in attempts by risk-takers to shift responsibility for potential losses onto others' shoulders. Quite naturally the others resent this brazen act: Institutions and their hired experts denounce individuals for demanding unacceptable levels of protection against involuntary risks inherent in the technologies that also bring impressive net benefits. Individuals reply by denouncing those same institutions for failing even to try to assess most such risks with the abundant scientific expertise at their disposal, and thus to saddle unjustly a random segment of the population, who may never even know the source of their troubles, with losses that will never be compensated. The main point is that both sides are correct. These bitter accusations, setting the parties to risk disputes at each other's throats, serve the function for each side (subconsciously, no doubt) of deflecting attention away from its own manifest inadequacies in risk management.

Under circumstances where both institutions and individuals are motivated to off-load potential losses for the risks they propagate, that is, to try to avoid accepting responsibility for their risk-taking behavior, society will continue to experience intense disagreements about managing risks. Some level of disagreement is inevitable in any case, given the inherent uncertainties that are built into the very nature of risky activity itself. But much of the disagreement is pointless and unhelpful, some of it paralyzes our social transactions, and some is very costly in terms of health and economic loss, both for inadequately assessed risks and for unnecessary risk reduction.

There is simply no doubt that many of our major institutions and equally many of our fellow citizens do indeed underestimate risk, more or less consciously, in order to maximize the benefits to themselves of risky activities. Institutions do so largely by failing to assess scientifically the relevant hazards and to avoid or reduce potential losses by implementing adequate safety measures, even though they have the means to do so, trusting that when and if such losses actually emerge they will be able to avoid accepting responsibility for them, since there will be insufficient evidence (especially as argued in courtrooms by their platoons of expensive legal talent) to establish convincing cause-and-effect relations. On the other hand, individuals do so largely by indulging in experiences fraught with excess risk, even though abundant information is circulating about the hazards and their consequences, trusting that when and if the odds run against them the losses can be mitigated and the bills paid by some social agency. On both sides the propagators of risky activities pretend not to know what the risks are.

The proposition that both institutions and individuals have a strong interest in underassessing and underestimating risk may seem unduly harsh, but in fact it is not; and it is past time to introduce a larger dose of honesty into society's debates about risk. This methodical avoidance of responsibility by both individuals and institutions for the risks being incurred at their insistence - this dishonesty, to speak bluntly - is one of the chief sources of mistrust between the parties to risk debates, and also one of the chief obstacles to arriving at a consensus on how to manage health and environmental risks.

Is there any way to avoid the unpleasant and often unproductive controversies over health and environmental risks that occur all too frequently in our society? There are no panaceas, but in recent years some new approaches have been tried that are very promising in this regard. They go by various names: alternative dispute resolution, regulatory negotiation ("reg-neg") or negotiated rule making, consensus building, environmental mediation and multi-stakeholder negotiation. These approaches have been sponsored officially or unofficially by federal and state or provincial agencies in both the United States and Canada, and they can also be initiated by private parties and later receive official sanction; they have been tried in areas such as air and water pollution regulations, forest land management and toxic chemicals.

The basic idea behind them is that all of the interested parties should meet face-to-face "across the table" and seek to arrive at a consensus position that can be part of an actual decision-making process. The underlying feature is that all of the key parties are accepting responsibility both for what is to be considered acceptable risk and also for the risk/risk and risk/benefit trade-offs that are made in the course of negotiations. This is by no means a perfect procedure and it can easily go "off the rails" when fundamental disagreements surface, as they are bound to do. Nonetheless we have no choice but to push ahead along this path, because it is the best route so far devised for defusing the endemic controversies surrounding health and environmental risk management.
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Author:Leiss, William; Chociolko, Christina
Publication:Risk Management
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:2836
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