Why we should ALL support Renewable Energy 6 – Quality of Life and Health part 3 – Reasonable Regulations

If you agree with a regulation, it is reasonable, but if you disagree, it is unreasonable.  And reasonable versus unreasonable all hinges on perception and acceptance or non-acceptance of a risk or hazard (see previous post).  If I told you about a drug on the market that helps prevent heart attacks and strokes but also kills more than 3000 people every year would you be supportive of it?  As long as you are not one of the people who die from it, you might be, but you don’t know until you take it.  So, is 3000 out of 330 million acceptable in a drug policy? At some point we need to draw a line that separates harm from safety.  Where that line is drawn is extremely complex.  The rational for what is acceptable can vary wildly from person to person, usually depending on where any person’s beliefs stand on any given issue.  And while no harm at all is certainly preferable, it is not realistic.  So, how do we decide on where to draw that line when considering risk evaluation for the health and safety of the whole community.

At this time the whole world is gripped with concern (and fear) about the Coronavirus.  It seems to be a highly transmissible virus and extreme measures have been enacted to combat its spread.  Most populations in all countries seem ready to comply with social distancing regulations and lockdowns because they see them as necessary to safeguard everyone from this virulent disease.  This virus is an acute problem because it can be seen immediately.  Strict regulations to combat chronic problems, however, are less acceptable because the immediate cause is not seen as readily because the effects are only seen over a long period of time. Air pollution is one such tricky problem because it chronic in its effects. That is, it takes years to recognize when health is being adversely affected and almost as long to conclude it is the air pollution that is causing the health problems.  One of the problems from air pollution is that we cannot easily see it or its affects.  To many people who focus primarily on money and profits from industries causing pollution, regulations are seen as onerous intrusions into business practices that create profits for stockholders.  These profits come at the expense of everyone else exposed to the pollution.  We can agree on where to draw the line for acute risk problems since in general, they tend to be relatively short term, but disagree on where that line ought to be for long-term chronic risk problems. 

The USA has a regulatory policy of innocent until proven guilty when it comes to risk protection.  That is something that might be risky is allowed until it is shown to be an undoubtable hazard.  Most of the rest of the developed world believes in the ‘Precautionary Principle’ where a potential risk has to be shown relatively benign (or harmless) before it is released.  Ultimately, regulations get enacted to safeguard people for any specific risk problem.  “Innocent until proven guilty” – Industry can introduce any products it wants.  Government bears the burden of proof to show if products are dangerous.  Precautionary principle – Industry cannot introduce a product until it is very thoroughly tested and shown convincingly to be harmless or the least harmful of all other options.

Most of the U.S. environmental policy was enacted during the 1970s following the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the formation of the EPA.  Prior to the 1970s, the negative effects of pollution were widespread and visible.  The 1964 landmark publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson revealed the casualness with which the industrial powers considered pollution.  It was seen a merely a byproduct of creating a higher Standard of Living (SOL).  What was not talked about in higher circles was the drastic drop of Quality of Life (QOL) factors from pollutions effects.  Even today, the discussion is on SOL and QOL is erroneously equated as being the same but has been decreasing for many decades because of multiple levels of pollution.

One of the biggest problems with laws and regulations is their interpretation and enforcement.  For instance, NEPA was a short four-page over-arching law enacted by congress.  The Interpretation of that law to create the outline for the rules and regulations was 52 pages long, and the rules and regulations that form the basis for how the EPA functions runs to several volumes.  Then put all these regulations into the hands of bureaucrats and you get the inevitable red-tape that makes people want to scream.  Enforcing them takes more technocrats who know what to do and the process gets so complicated its little wonder so many people feel frustrated with laws that are meant to protect us.  It takes a lot of funding to make the whole process work as smoothly as possible.  Two techniques promoted by the industrial lobbyists to convince politicians to de-regulate are to simply ignore the regulations at various levels of enforcement or to defund the enforcement.  The first leaves the agencies open to never ending lawsuits and the second just means nothing gets done since there are too few regulators to actually do the regulating.    

I started this post by asking whether regulations are reasonable or unreasonable.  We get so bogged down in arguing about the problems of a regulation, or how it is enforced that we forget why the regulation was enacted in the first place.  These laws are set up to protect us from harm and to minimize risk.  Instead of arguing against the law, maybe we should be debating how we can better help them be enforced more effectively to protect people and to help business still function efficiently.   After all, isn’t QOL everyone’s thing!  

Why we should ALL support Renewable Energy 5 – Quality of Life and Health part 2 – Risk Analysis

If we invested in, and used, non-polluting technologies and fuels, then we would not need rules, regulations or risk analyses to keep us healthy and safe.  We would be living in a world in which the only risk we faced would be the ones that come through accidents or where we consciously indulged in risk activities like sports.  The fact that we currently have so many rules and regulations and risk processes to minimize problems shows clearly how far we have come in unwanted acceptance of these serious problems.  And the crazy fact is that we do not need to accept these risks imposed up on us if only we would make choices that are for a better quality of life instead of just a higher standard of living. 

Acceptance comes from our personal perception of our individual reality based on our experiences – perception is not something abstract, it is as real as anything in life.  But personal experiences are misleading.  When we have not personally experienced a bad outcome, we feel it is more rare and unlikely to occur than it actually might be.  We have an exaggerated view of our own abilities to control our fate – some feel they can avoid hazards because they are wiser or luckier than others.  Technologies we trust or that we are employed within, we tend to underestimate the risks, while technologies we distrust or don’t like we give higher overestimations of their dangers.    

As an example of how we misunderstand real risk versus perceived risk, consider now how risky you perceive the following hazards, and compare your perception to the actuarial number with it that indicates the loss of number of days of life expectancy: Smoking 20 cigarettes per day (2,370); Heart disease from Lifestyle choices (1,607); Cancer (1,247); Overweight by 15% (777); Automobile accident (207); Homicide (93); Home accident (74); Drowning (24); Fire (20), and Airplane accident (3.7).  If just losing a few days seems OK to you, then let’s reframe the hazards differently: You have a 1 in 5 chance of death from Heart disease, a 1 in 7 chance of death from cancer, and a 1 in 24 chance of stroke, all related to lifestyle choices.  Yet, death from a firearm is 1 in 314, from drowning 1 in 1,006, airplane accident 1 in 5,051, and lightening 1 in 79,746.  Accidents tend to be rare events but we fear them more than we apparently do the toxins to be found in the air, water and food we ingest all day, every day, that are more hazardous than we seem to realize.        

Risk assessment is a technique that helps us identify risks, determine the statistical probability or likelihood of their occurrence, and then assess the potential severity of the effects should a risk occur.  This allows us to create policy for the potential economic, health, social, and environmental costs of any hazard or risk situation.  The problem with risk analysis and policy is that it also needs to include the perception of risk, known as ‘outrage.’  Sometimes people are outraged over something that is not a real problem, but they demand action anyway.  And other times people accept something as non-risky, when in fact it is extremely dangerous.  How a risk is portrayed in the mass media or through social media can determine how that risk (real or imagined) is perceived!    So, Risk = Probability X Outrage. The mathematical probability that some harmful outcome will result from a given action, event, or substance.  Probability = a quantitative description of the likelihood of a certain outcome, while Outrage = the public reaction, in which outrage may need to be increased or decreased. 

In an ideal situation, situations or products with risks and hazards are tested to determine scientific results that can be quantified and probabilities determined – this is risk assessment.  The political, social, economic, and ethical aspects are considered, which when combined with the risk assessment allow risk management to be drafted.  But this risk management is further influenced by aspects such as actually identifying and accepting identification of a hazard, with the toxicity component and the extent of exposure to the hazard.  Add to that perceptions of private citizens, industry and manufacturing lobbying, and non-profit interest groups and you can see how hard it is to get reasonable public policy enacted for risks and hazards.

The extent of a low risk problem but high consequence hazard should it occur is also a factor that is hard to rationalize.   For instance, the probability of a nuclear core melt-down is 1 in 3704 (about once every decade).  That is actually a moderately low risk, but the fallout (pun intended) can be long lasting and felt globally.  We are still seeing the global effects of the Fukushima disaster from 2011, and locally the region in Japan may be unlivable for several decades or more.  To put it in a more Hollywood movie level: the odds of being hit by a cosmic body capable of causing global catastrophe is 1 in 1,600,000.  The likely hood is very low, but should it happen then massive ecological die-offs and end of human civilization is certain.  New data suggest that the start and end of the Early Dryas period (12,800 to 11,500 years before present) were characterized by two separate large cosmic impacts.  Maybe not as rare as simply killing off the Dinosaurs 65 million years ago that most people know about.  So, despite this Hollywood-esque example, we do need to ask whether a risk is acceptable regardless of the probability. 

Air pollution from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels is one of the largest risks we face today and ranks within the lifestyle choices (see third paragraph above) we make and accept every day.  There are numerous studies that clearly show that pollution from fossil-fuel combustion is the leading environmental threat to global health, yet, we accept it as a perceived consequence of our standard of living.  Some say we have no choice in accepting fossil fuels, but the reality is that we do make that choice either directly, or through complacency to economic forces that we accept.  We tend to feel powerless to make change for the better simply because many of the problems are literally global in nature.  So, what can we do?  Firstly, recognize that what makes the headlines is not usually the stuff that will likely hurt us.  Find out what does?   Ask not “is it safe,” but rather “how risky is it compared to other options.”  Know that ‘YOU DO HAVE CONTROL.’  Ask yourself, “Do I have control over the risk?” If so, minimize it and quit worrying what can’t be controlled or the minor risks of everyday living.  Your continual choices concerning lifestyle and technology depend on what you accept as the true risks you face.  Many risks can be minimized through reasonable regulations or through the financial pressures of your purse.  More on that in the next post.   

Why we should ALL support Renewable Energy 4 – Quality of Life and Health part 1 – Problems of Toxicology

Bring up the health concerns of extracting and burning fossil fuels and most people fall into one of four camps: Those who fear and experience health problems from pollution; those that deny or ignore health problems because they profit from fossil fuels; those that fear losing the conveniences of using fossil fuels; or those that simply do not know that there are health problems associated with fossil fuels.  Not to make light of the fourth camp, but they are by far the largest of the camps that seem to think the technologies that support our modern technological, consumer society are benign. 

A quick overview of how technology overall has inundated us ALL with pollution problems should help remedy this illusion of benignity from technologies that we take for granted.  There are over 100,000 synthetic chemicals on the market today, and very few have been thoroughly tested for any harmful effects.  A quick test on your attitude to being exposed to chemicals.  Whenever you buy any household product, think, “Is it safe?”  If after reading the list of ingredients you would happily put it next to the food on the kitchen counter then fine.  If you would be hesitant to place it anywhere near your food or even the children, then why is it in your house being used?  Some products with toxic ingredients and potential for harm need to be used, but how carefully are you using them? 

Of course, there are many kinds of toxicity, and for many, we do not have a choice about whether we are exposed to them or not, because they come to us from many sources.   We are all exposed to pollution and toxic chemicals via Industrial manufacturing that reach us through; consumer products; workplace products; medicines and medical materials; pesticides and fertilizers; and air, water and solid waste.  Think about all the places and ways you can be exposed to these chemicals: drinking water, the air you breathe, the food you eat, household and cosmetic products, medicinal chemicals, and workplace exposure, as well as multiple possibilities in all public areas where chemicals are used.  The range of toxicants are also unnerving:  carcinogens that cause cancer, mutagens that cause mutations in DNA, teratogens that cause birth defects in pregnant women, allergens that cause unnecessary immune responses, neurotoxins that damage the nervous system, and endocrine disruptors that interfere with hormones.  We might believe that government agencies like the FDA and EPA are protecting us – aren’t they?  They are charged with monitoring 75,000 industrial chemicals, but there is minimal funding to do this required testing – too many chemicals, and too little time, people, and resources.  Only 10% of chemicals on the market are thoroughly tested with less than 1% actually being government regulated.  And then only 2% are screened for carcinogens, mutagens, teratogens, and 0% are tested for endocrine, nervous, or immune effects. Because of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts our air and water are somewhat regulated but the thresholds of how much pollution is allowed is determined in part by how effective the polluting industries have been in lobbying to deregulate such landmark acts.   

.Toxic and emissions drift inundate anyone that is in the air flow from the sources of pollution, whether this be farmers using pesticides on a field, smoke stacks from manufacturing or coal burning power plants, or emissions from resource extraction fields.  There is nowhere on Earth you can go now (including the polar regions) to escape these drifts, but the concentrations of toxics are clearly higher the closer you are to a source or if you are in the air flow corridors.  Water and wind have this propensity to move around the planet.  So, what pollution happens in China, for instance, can eventually make it into the rain and air over your home.   Besides river and groundwater pollution that makes it into your drinking water, there are numerous sources of your farm crops being polluted as well as the many chemicals that are added by the food industry to processed food!  But, wait.  Isn’t the food industry regulated?  Sort of.  The FDA cannot test everything so most times they leave the industry themselves to police the danger of any chemicals they use.  If any chemical is ‘Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS)’ then it need not be tested.  Who determines GRAS?  Experts of course, most who work for or are funded by the industry itself.  I wish I was simply some radical trying to just scare you, but you can easily look up this information for yourself. 

It’s not as if chemicals that are used then just vanish after they enter the environment (or us).  There is the problem of persistence as well as drift.  Some pollutants are more long-lasting than others and can persist within the environment for many years, breaking down naturally – sometimes in to a more toxic a chemical than the original pollutant.  Pesticide/toxicant pollution drift can be found from the tropics to the arctic and accumulate within food webs.  What might start out as low innocuous concentrations of pollutions can, through the process of biomagnification (the concentration of toxins in an organism as a result of its ingesting other plants or animals in which the toxins are more widely disbursed), reach toxic concentrations in long-lived predators.  

Dose-response curves allow us to predict effects of higher doses.  By extrapolating the curve out to higher values, we can predict how toxic a substance may be to humans at various concentrations.  In most curves, response increases with dose.  But this is not always the case; the increase may not be linear.  With endocrine disruption for instance, toxic effects may increase even though the toxin concentration has decreased.  Now you might be asking, aren’t some people more sensitive than others to pollution?  Yes, that is true, but you don’t know who until they are affected!  Not all people are equal.  Sensitivity to toxicant can vary with sex, age, weight, etc.  Babies, older people, or those in poor health are more sensitive.  The type of exposure is important.  Acute is high exposure in short period of time and often be pinpointed to a specific source (e.g. a chemical splash or factory explosion).  The hardest to pinpoint is chronic exposures that occur from lower amounts over a long period of time.  To complicate the problems even more, many chemical substances may interact when combined together within the environment such that the mixes of toxicants may cause health effects greater than the sum of their individual effects.  These are called synergistic effects and pose a challenging problem for toxicologists since there is no way to test all possible combinations!  (And the environment contains complex mixtures of many toxicants.)

This blog post isn’t meant to scare you but just to make you aware of the need for caution and awareness, and not to simply accept things as they are just because some authority says “not to worry.”  There is a lot we can do, but it means making your voice heard, and joining it with others to set sensible and well-thought out regulations and restrictions for everyone’s health and benefit.   To Be Continued…