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.