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#395 - Risk Assessment -- Part 3: Which Problems Shall We Ignore, 22-Jun-1994

Risk assessment became a hot topic in Congress in 1994. Earlier this
year when the Senate passed a bill to elevate EPA [U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency] to cabinet status, Bennett Johnston --a
petrochemical senator from Louisiana --tacked on an amendment requiring
EPA to conduct a risk assessment for every regulation the agency
issues. The House of Representatives has not acted on the "EPA
elevation bill" for fear that the Johnston amendment would snarl EPA in
paper, making the agency even less effective.[1]

Representative Herb Klein has sponsored a new bill, H.R. 4306, called
the "Risk Assessment Improvement Act of 1994," hoping to make EPA
conduct all its risk assessments according to fixed guidelines.

The National Academy of Sciences in January issued a fat volume called
SCIENCE AND JUDGMENT IN RISK ASSESSMENT that aims to improve EPA's risk
assessments. Yes, risk assessment is enjoying great attention in
Washington these days. Why?

The premier think tank on risk assessment --the Center for Risk
Management in Washington, operated by Resources for the Future (RFF) --
explains it this way: "The subject of risk assessment has leaped to
prominence during the past year, both in Washington, D.C. and at the
grass roots.... There are several reasons for the sudden interest in
risk assessment, but the major underlying reason is the general
recognition that government and private sector resources are scarce and
that it is therefore necessary to understand what society gains from
environmental laws and regulations. The only analytical method for
determining this is risk assessment. Once the premise of scarce
resources is accepted, the need to set priorities is unavoidable."

Really? Is it really true that in 1994, for the first time, people
recognized that resources are scarce? As H.L. Mencken liked to say,
"Balderdash." Resources have always been limited and people have always
known it. The point of developing a Constitutional democracy in the
18th century was to allocate resources more fairly than a monarchy had
ever managed to do. The whole point of "politics" is to influence the
allocation of scarce resources. Will our town have a new nursing home
or a new golf course? Will we subsidize public housing or give a tax
break to the new incinerator? These are typical political choices in a
world where resources are scarce. There is nothing new about scarce
resources.

But risk assessment as a substitute for the political process is new.
And think tanks to promote risk assessment as "the only analytical
method" for learning what we gain from environmental laws are CERTAINLY
new. Is risk assessment the ONLY way to analyze the benefits we get
from environmental laws? What a silly idea. Who would support a think
tank to promote such a silly, undemocratic idea? A recent newsletter
from the Center for Risk Management lists the following "major
corporate supporters:" Browning-Ferris Industries; the Chemical
Manufacturers Association; the Dow Chemical Company; E.I. DuPont de
Nemours & Co.; Monsanto Company; WMX Technologies [formerly Waste
Management, Inc.]; the General Electric Foundation; and Philip Morris
Companies, Inc., among others. "Other corporate contributors" listed in
the newsletter are the American Petroleum Institute and the Union
Carbide Foundation. In sum, the Center for Risk Management is supported
by many of the corporations that have fostered environmental
destruction on a global scale for 50 years. Why might these
corporations want to promote risk assessment as a way of establishing
environmental priorities?

When risk assessment is used to establish environmental priorities, the
effect is to decide which problems will be ignored, which destructive
behaviors will be tolerated. As we saw last week (RHWN #394), Judge
Stephen Breyer, President Clinton's choice for Supreme Court justice
and a self-styled expert on risk, says the nation is wasting money
worrying about old chemical dumps, pesticides, and nuclear power. It is
evident that Mr. Breyer has reached a personal political conclusion
that people exposed to pesticides and industrial chemicals from old
dumps don't matter much, and that nuclear power is safe. He believes
the American people should ignore these problems and focus resources
elsewhere. Naturally he's entitled to his views. Unfortunately, he
wants to impose those views on the rest of us, and he proposes a
vehicle for doing just that: an elite corps of risk assessment
"experts" who will be "politically insulated" from Congress and from
the American people. This elite corps would make risk decisions for the
rest of us. The public would be less involved than presently. For
example, Judge Breyer says, "For reasons I have mentioned, to achieve
the public's broader health and safety goals may require forgoing
direct public control of, say, individual toxic waste dumps." (African
Americans and native people, beware.) And Judge Breyer explains how the
elite corps group could defuse public concerns at the local level: the
Judge says his system "offers the local [EPA] administrators insulation
and protection from criticism. They can answer the locally posed
question, 'Is our swamp clean now?' with, 'Yes, the swamp is clean; the
risks are insignificant and national technical (system-based) standards
say that is so.'"[2] Unfortunately, all the scientists in the world
will never be able to determine by scientific methods that the risks of
a contaminated swamp are "insignificant." Science cannot determine
that. Chemicals that seem safe today are often recognized as dangerous
tomorrow, and that will always be the case. Furthermore, science has no
way to judge the consequences of exposure to many pollutants
simultaneously. Therefore, decisions about how to treat contaminated
swamps will always be largely political. Scientists are welcome to join
the debate, just like any other citizens. The plain fact is, people are
uneasy about strange, unnatural chemicals in their food and water, and
even in their local swamp. (Most people are also aware that nuclear
power plants can be used to make bombs, and that the threat of nuclear
war, even as far from home as North Korea, is a big problem.) People
are aware of evidence of increased birth defects, developmental
disorders, cancer, and other illnesses associated with pesticides, and
with strange chemicals leaking from Superfund dumps. Men today produce
half the sperm their grandfathers did, most likely as a result of
exposure to "acceptable" levels of unnatural industrial chemicals. (See
RHWN #343.) IT IS RATIONAL TO BE CONCERNED ABOUT SUCH THINGS. In a
democracy, people have a right to be concerned, and to advocate that
resources be applied to their concerns. That is politics. That is the
American democratic system. It is perhaps understandable that Dow and
DuPont might want to substitute risk assessment for the political
process because they can "talk turkey" with the risk experts, whereas
the public cannot, and thus in a less democratic system these polluters
might be spared the costs of cleaning up the massive quantities of
environmental poisons they have released for 50 years.

Comparative risk assessment --or CRA, as it is know in the risk biz --
is chiefly a means for increasing the political power of "experts" and
reducing the political power of the general public. The experts will
decide what is important and what is safe, and-- if people like Judge
Breyer have their way--the experts will be allowed to impose their
views on the public. But CRA is not an objective, scientific
enterprise; for reasons given in RHWN #393 and #394, it is distinctly a
political process. CRA "experts" have no more legitimate claim to
authority or power than anyone else in society.

Furthermore, CRA simply will not work: who expects people living near a
Superfund dump to sit by while the risk experts tell them their problem
is insignificant compared to global warming, or that society is better
served by spending its money, say, subsidizing nuclear power? Using CRA
to set environmental priorities is an invitation to continuous warfare
at the local level. It will inevitably lead to new environmental
injustices, as the voices of the public are excluded from the debate,
and the "experts" --many of them the same people who created major
environmental problems we now face --make more bad decisions in a
political vacuum. CRA simply will not fly, unless we are willing to
abandon democracy. It is apparent that Judge Breyer understands this
and is willing to shrink our democratic freedoms so the experts can
have their way with us. Is CRA really the "only" way to analyze
problems of risk in a complex society? Of course not.

Instead of prioritizing environmental problems, thus admitting that
certain problems will be ignored (and certain destructive behaviors
will be tolerated), we could instead make a national commitment to
solve all environmental problems. Every county (or even municipal)
government could produce a "state of the environment" report that
assessed what problems existed and what progress was being made toward
(or away from) solutions. Environmental goals could be thrashed out as
part of this report, which might be updated every 2 or 3 years. New
information would be factored into each update.

As part of this process, every business might be required to complete
an environmental audit that would discuss THEIR alternatives to reduce
THEIR impact on the environment and public health. No one would be
required to implement the alternatives, but merely to "rigorously
explore and objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives, and for
alternatives which were eliminated from detailed study, briefly discuss
the reasons for their having been eliminated," as is required now of
federal agencies preparing environmental impact statements under the
National Environmental Policy Act.

The publication of environmental audits discussing all available
alternatives might lead to public pressure on businesses to adopt
environmentally sustainable practices. The pressure might consist of
green labeling, taxes on toxics, consumer boycotts, laws, initiatives,
or regulations. But these are simply the processes of an informed
citizenry in a democracy and THAT is where debate about economic
feasibility should come in.

There are many other possible ways to promote rational behavior toward
the environment. The point here is not to insist on one particular
approach, but to examine the most sensible means of addressing all
environmental problems rather than claiming rationality for comparative
risk assessment, an inherently irrational system of deciding which
problems to ignore.[3]

--Peter Montague

=====

[1] Terry Davies, "Message From the Director," CENTER FOR RISK
MANAGEMENT NEWSLETTER (Spring, 1994), pg. 1. Available free from:
Resources for the Future, 1616 P St., N.W., Washington, DC 20036;
phone: (202) 328-5060.

[2] Stephen Breyer, BREAKING THE VICIOUS CIRCLE (Cambridge, Ma.:
Harvard University Press, 1993), pgs. 73, 76.

[3] Thanks to Mary O'Brien for many ideas on risk assessment, though
she bears no responsiblity for their presentation here.

Descriptor terms: risk assessment; stephen breyer; epa; comparative
risk assessment; bennett johnston; petroleum industry; senate; house of
representatives; congress; legislation; herb klein; national academy of
sciences; center for risk management; resources for the future; bfi;
chemical manufacturers association; dow chemical; dupont; monsanto;
wmx; ge; philip morris; american petroleum institute; union carbide;
superfund; radiation; nuclear power; pesticides; science; nepa;
alternatives assessment; environmental audits; mary o'brien; terry
davies;