Environmental risks: What’s real? What’s not? (1994) | THINK TANK

Ben Wattenberg: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. How dangerous is your food, your water, the
air you breathe? Are Americans being poisoned by industrial
pollution and pesticides, or are these threats vastly exaggerated? Joining us to sort through the conflicts and
the consensus are Jessica Mathews, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations;
Lester Lave, professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University; Frederica Perera, professor
of public health at Columbia University; and Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise
Institute. The topic before this house: environmental
risks. What’s real? What’s not? This week on “Think Tank.” The late political scientist Aaron Wildavsky
wrote 15 years ago, and I quote, “How extraordinary the richest, longest-lived, best-protected,
most resourceful civilization with the highest degree of insight into its own technology
is on its way to becoming the most frightened.” And since then, it seems Americans have only
become more scared. Epidemic disease used to kill Americans by
the thousands. Today polio, tuberculosis, and typhoid are
almost unknown thanks to vaccinations and better sanitation. Accident rates have also plummeted. Advances in technology and ever-stricter safety
regulations have reduced accidents that occur on the road, at work, and at home. As a result, US life expectancy at birth has
soared, more than doubling from a mere 31 years in 1890 to 75 years today. Yet public fear is high. According to a recent poll, 78 percent of
Americans believe they are subjected to more risks today than their parents were 20 years
ago. People worry about the health hazards posed
by pesticides, pollution, and nuclear waste. But what is really dangerous to your health? Well, according to a recent study from the
University of Pittsburgh, cigarettes are deadly. Statistically speaking, the average American
male smoker would live 6.6 years longer if he gave up smoking. Automobile accidents shorten the life of an
average American by 200 days and bicycle accidents by 27 days. Meanwhile, some of the environmental risks
that people fear most are relatively minor. Foods treated with pesticides cut life expectancy
by all of 12 days, hazardous waste only 2.5 days, and nuclear power shortens the average
American’s life by less than one hour. But various public health experts and environmentalists
say that we don’t really know how dangerous some things are. Therefore, they say, we should err on the
side of caution when trying to control risky activities. They also argue that Americans should not
be exposed involuntarily to any risks from pesticides or hazardous waste. Fred Smith, let me begin with you. Should Americans be scared of their environment? Fred Smith: They should be scared of the risks
posed by environmental policy. What we’ve done is created frightening,
fearmongering agencies and laws that encourage people to frighten us, and it’s been very
effective. The safest, wealthiest society in the world,
as the chart showed earlier, is frightened to death. Ben Wattenberg: Jessica? Jessica Mathews: I don’t think life expectancy
is the right measure at all. There are plenty of risks, and the question
is really what benefit do you get for a small marginal risk? That’s one thing people weigh. The other thing people weigh is that they
feel totally differently about risks they control versus risks they don’t, and that’s
really what, to my mind, is the crucial distinction. Ben Wattenberg: Lester? Lester Lave: I think that we’ve gotten richer. We’re a lot richer than our grandparents
in the 1890s. At that point you could see what it was that
was going to kill you. Now we can’t see it or smell it, and so
I think we’re richer. We’re more concerned about these things. We’ve knocked out most of the causes of
what we can worry about, and so we’re more concerned about the things that we can’t
see that might kill us. Ben Wattenberg: Frederica? Frederica Perera: Well, I think Americans
are concerned. I’m not sure about this premise that they’re
terrified. I think they’re concerned, and rightfully
so, about environmental risks. There are such risks. We’ve identified some of them, and we’ve
dealt with them. And regulations have been effective in controlling
those risks and in lowering cancer rates in workers and male sterility and neurologic
disease in children. So we have seen in our recent history the
impact of regulation of risks, and new risks are emerging. It’s very important, as we present those
to the public, that we’re very, very clear. We owe them that — to be very clear about
the basis of risk assessment. Ben Wattenberg: Has there been, on the part
of the environmentalists, a regular staccato exaggeration of these threats? Frederica Perera: I’m not sure I would agree
with that. I think there are different takes on the magnitude
of risks for one particular pollutant. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the risk
estimates. But I think what’s really important is to
present the public the range of estimates and the uncertainty, what government can do,
and what they themselves can do if there are steps that they can take. Fred Smith: The problem is, of course, we’re
not getting a balanced assessment of risk. EPA tells us a very little bit about the need
for a better diet, to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. They terrify us about the possibility of small
residuals — Jessica Mathews: The Department of Agriculture
tells us a ton about fruits and vegetables. So it’s not really — Fred Smith: The effect is, though, that the
agencies that are challenging us on risk issues are not focusing — better diets are one
of the best ways we can reduce cancer risk, and instead we’re trivializing the risk
by running around and talking about organic good, natural bad. What is it, 1/10,000th of the cancer-causing
substances we find in our diets are related to man-made; 99.99 are coming about because
of natural ingredients that our bodies are prepared, partially, to address. Frederica Perera: I question those statistics. In fact — Ben Wattenberg: That’s Bruce Ames’s data,
isn’t it? Fred Smith: Yeah. Frederica Perera: Yes. And we’ve had a debate back and forth, and
others have as well. And I question those numbers. They’re really based on inadequate data
on the numbers of carcinogens, their potency. So they’re very much — Ben Wattenberg: But there are carcinogens
in natural foods. Frederica Perera: Yes, there are indeed. And I think we should be concerned about carcinogens
like alpha toxin, which is now regulated, actually, and remove the natural, seminatural
carcinogens. But the problem is that with the pesticides,
I think the latest figures were that 10 percent of pesticides in inert ingredients had actually
been tested for toxicity. So we don’t know a lot about what these
pesticides do. Fred Smith: But we also don’t know very
much about natural ingredients. Frederica Perera: That’s right. Fred Smith: You’re talking about — we’re
spending much more of our efforts testing man-made ingredients as though man was trying
to do us in, whereas nature’s been around a lot longer. Ben Wattenberg: Fred, let me ask you a question. I’ve been reading through some of this material,
and you all might respond to it. It seems to me that the dynamic that is going
on is that environmentalists raise an alarm about something because of the nature of fundraising
and political power and everything else. As in any movement, those fears become purposefully
exaggerated. Then the other side comes in and says, “You
environmentalists are exaggerating this.” But then they also point out, “Look at all
the good things that have happened. You know, carbon dioxide is down. This is down. This is down.” Jessica Mathews: Carbon dioxide. Ben Wattenberg: Excuse me? Jessica Mathews: Up, up, up. Ben Wattenberg: Well, all the EPA things — Jessica Mathews: Right. Ben Wattenberg: All the measurable things
that have been controlled in the last 20 years by the Environmental Protection Agency, those
lines are all coming down — Jessica Mathews: Some things. Ben Wattenberg: — in part because of environmental
activism that brought us to this thing. So what you’re saying is “They’re exaggerating,
but by the way, their exaggeration has led to a lot of good.” Fred Smith: That’s actually not what we
try to say. What we’re arguing is that the first-generation
haystack problems, as it were — the fact that we had untreated sewage flowing into
rivers, and unfortunately we still do in some cases, that we had the massive flows of millions
of tons of particulates into the air. Those kind of problems sometimes can be worked
on in the political sector by ham-handed regulation. But we’re now going not after haystack,
but needle-in-the-haystack problems. These tiny, tiny parts-per-billion risks where
those areas, EPA’s own assessment, external reviews of EPA, EPA asking the wrong questions,
the Harvard study — Jessica Mathews: There’s something to say
here, but I think there’s another proof, and that is, I don’t agree that all the
current risks are de minimis. But one thing has happened, which is in 20
years our technology for measuring chemicals or radiation has improved in some cases by
a factor of 1,000 or even 10,000 — gas chromatographs, all kinds of things that could measure things
in parts per trillion that used to show up as zero. But our capacity for managing those risks,
for understanding them, for responding appropriately, let’s say generously, let’s say it’s
twice as good as it was 20 years ago. And some people might not say that much. So one thing, it’s improved in sensitivity
by a factor of 1,000 or 10,000, and the other by a factor of two. We’ve got what appears to be a lot more
problems. Lester Lave: I think this is polarizing the
debate by saying there are risks, there aren’t risks. I think we’re past that. It’s really much more trying to take a look
at what are the priorities. Are we working on the right things? I think the problem is that we’re not working
on the right things. Fred Smith: But that does get us to the point,
Lester, where the institutions we’ve created — the EPA and the environmental activist
organizations — tend to focus on a subset of risks that advance their agendas. And the concept that there are risks that
regulations can address and there are risks that regulations create — the risk that
we’re overspending and therefore impoverishing ourselves, the wealthier-is-healthier literature
which suggests that — Ben Wattenberg: Why don’t you explain that
— wealthier-is-healthier? Fred Smith: Well, regulation obviously has
economic consequences. It calls for money to monitor and to create
rules. So there’s a wealth effect. We’re somewhat poorer when we regulate. We’d better be buying something for that. If the risks we’re addressing by regulation
are very small and the costs of those regulations are large relative to the risk, we may be
creating more risks by making us a poorer nation than we’re addressing by making us
an overregulated nation. And wealthier-is-healthier arguments — I
mean, you’re in the public health area. One of the best things you can do to improve
public health as a nation in America, but especially the third world, is to allow these
countries the ability to rapidly expand the use of technology and economic growth. It makes them healthier. Frederica Perera: Well, I’ve been doing
research for several years in Eastern Europe. Now, that’s not a wealthier environment,
but that’s an example of where you had development and exportation of resources without regulation,
which is absolutely horrendous. [Cross-talk.] Frederica Perera: I’m giving you sort of
an extreme example. I mean, you’re implying that our regulations
have had no benefit, that they’ve been useless. In fact, I think we can document very great
benefits in terms of health protection for children. There were an estimated 10 million children
who were protected by the lead standard, prevented from having nervous system damage during their
early years. And there are other such real milestones. Now, it’s true that we are dealing with
less obvious risks, and we have moved from waiting for human data, which we did initially,
to basing risk assessments on testing data in the laboratory and using statistical modeling. Now, my whole point is that we must do a solid
job of assessing the risks and then, when they are significant and agencies are not
supposing to regulate risks that don’t exceed — Fred Smith: That’s not true. Frederica Perera: — quite a threshold. Fred Smith: But it’s not really true, Doctor,
because in effect, if you look at the way we’re — Frederica Perera: It’s true that the risks
have to be significant, and usually that’s quite a high threshold. Fred Smith: Alar, asbestos, dioxin, over and
over again — Jessica Mathews: Alar is a known potent carcinogen. Fred Smith: Yes, of course. It’s always — Frederica Perera: And estimates by EPA said
that the risks were one in 10,000. Fred Smith: No, but we’re not talking about
— of course there are risks of chemicals. I think every — the problem is there are
also risks of overregulating some of these. Jessica Mathews: Sure there are. Fred Smith: When we reduce the use of pesticides
or all these other trace elements, undoubtedly there is some health benefit, but there are
also health consequences. There are risks and there are risks. And when we say that the only risk we face
in the modern society is technology, we’re trivializing the situation. Jessica Mathews: But there are also — there’s
a question — Ben Wattenberg: Jessica, would you feed your
children apples with alar? Would you have a problem with that? Jessica Mathews: Well, I mean, luckily that
doesn’t arise. Ben Wattenberg: Well, it did. I mean, in the past they were sprayed with
alar. My understanding is that it was all a red
herring, or a green herring, depending on the apple. Jessica Mathews: No, I think it — I mean,
I think there are still some uncertainties, although my understanding is — and maybe
Ricki can confirm it — the last study that was done, in fact, found after alar was removed
from the market, found it to be a more potent carcinogen than had previously been known,
and at lower doses. There are — Ben Wattenberg: But were they at dosages that
could harm human beings? I mean, they do these tests where they pump
up a laboratory rat with 10,000 times the amount — Jessica Mathews: Sure, and that’s a — Ben Wattenberg: It’s just like saying alar
is a carcinogen; if you take a bag of it and drop it on a rat, it’ll die. But that’s not saying that if you give it
a tiny — Jessica Mathews: But a — if you say to me,
“Here’s an apple that’s been treated with alar. Would you like your child to eat it?” I’ll say no because I can have an apple
without it. And so the question that I think the society
asks is: What benefit did alar bring? And that’s the thing I think also — it’s
not just the cost of whether to use it or not. But is it a marginal benefit that apples stay
longer on the trees and are easier to harvest or look pretty? Ben Wattenberg: Lester, could you give us
sort of a ranking of what is most dangerous to us, starting from the top and going down? Let’s get some numbers out there. Lester Lave: If you’re currently a smoker,
then smoking is the most dangerous thing you can do. If you don’t do your seat belts in the car,
that’s probably the most dangerous thing you can do. I’m sometimes struck by seeing children
roaming around in the back of the station wagon with a parent up front who’s smoking. That’s really an irresponsible set of actions. Beyond that, we’re certainly talking about
bias, for example, of what it is that you’re — Ben Wattenberg: Well, alcoholism is a — Lester Lave: Diet is going to be more of a
problem than alcohol, at least for the average American. As you get on down, we still have some — I
think that we’re just in danger of trivializing the issue. There certainly are some environmental risks. I think that throwing out the laboratory testing,
saying that that stuff is invalid, is just not right. Ben Wattenberg: Well, what are they? Lester Lave: Well, what we have to do is we
have to start looking at what are the highest priorities. The Environmental Protection Agency— we
don’t have to ask what Lester Lave’s opinion is. We have both the senior staff of the Environmental
Protection Agency and then the academic scientists who are on the Science Advisory Board. They ranked what the risks were. They said that there are some things that
are vastly overregulated, overstated, like hazardous waste dumps. There are other things, like indoor air quality
— radon in homes — that are much more of a risk than that. And so they wanted to get the priorities straight. And we’ve had EPA administrators who have
pleaded with Congress to give them the ability to get the priorities straight, and unfortunately
we haven’t done that. So let’s get away from this debate about
whether we’re going to drop 10,000 pound bags of alar on rats and see whether it hurts
them. Let’s talk about real risks and priorities. Frederica Perera: In fact, that really isn’t
true. Animal testing does not occur that way. That’s really quite a distortion of the
methodology that’s used. And as I mentioned earlier — Ben Wattenberg: They do overdose them. They don’t give them normal — Frederica Perera: No. Well, a dose is chosen — that is, a tolerated
dose for that animal, a maximum tolerated dose, and then fractional doses below that
— because of the fact that the animal has such a short life span compared to humans. And the most recent assessment of that question
“Are animal tests valid?” by the National Academy of Sciences working group on that
subject reaffirmed it as a valid procedure. What’s the alternative? To wait for human data. So I want to dispel another myth here. Ben Wattenberg: Wasn’t there a major dissenting
opinion for that in that very report? Frederica Perera: There were, in fact, I think,
several dissenting opinions in the report, one saying it’s not going far enough and,
you know, strong enough, and one disagreeing. But I’m not certain how many dissenting
opinions there were. But the fact is that that is an established
methodology that we use because we don’t want the alternative of waiting for cases
of illness and actual death. And we want to move forward from this chemical
by chemical — Fred Smith: You’re missing the point. I really think — look, we’re not arguing
that there are not risks associated with the unknown. We’re always in a sense of walking into
a world we don’t know that well. The trick is: Can we know everything before
we act? Is this whole idea that before we open doors
we have to be absolutely certain what’s behind there? Are there risks of stagnating our society
by frightening ourselves and avoiding the role of technology? We are arguing, are there risks from pesticides? And I think we all are aware there must be
some risks, high or low, but fairly small in the area of pesticide usage. But we’re also aware that a better diet
for people is a health-enhancing situation, and pesticides are one of the most dramatic
ways we have made food so much more plentiful and so much more available throughout the
world. We’re talking about the risks of pesticides
and the risks of higher-priced foods. Jessica Mathews: Yeah, but you’re posing
questions that don’t exist. Fred Smith: They do exist. Jessica Mathews: No, they don’t. The question is which pesticide do you use? Fred Smith: No, it’s not. Pesticides are being attacked by the environmental
community. Jessica Mathews: But Fred, look what happened
to the apple industry after alar was removed. Fred Smith: That’s right. Apples became somewhat less fresh, somewhat
less available, and the apple industry absorbed large losses. That’s what happened. Jessica Mathews: No, sir. That is not what happened. Fred Smith: That is exactly what happened,
and it’s happening over and over again. We have now got $150 billion — Jessica Mathews: Fred, stop for a second. Fred Smith: — we’re spending on regulations. That is not invisible. Jessica Mathews: Apples are not more expensive. Apple industry profits have doubled. Ben Wattenberg: Lester, you’re an economist. Jessica Mathews: It’s a fact. It’s a fact. Lester Lave: I love to hear people talk about
economics. You may one day want to get my stock market
predictions. [Laughter.] I think that — I don’t hear anybody here
saying that we shouldn’t have pesticides. I mean, if I’m wrong about that, let somebody
come forward. I think that everybody here would say that
the unintelligent use of pesticides, which many farmers have done in the past — that
is, applying far too much of them when it’s not needed — everybody here would condemn
that. So we’re now all in the middle ground of
asking, what is it that people should do? Does a farmer who’s not educated in this
stuff, should that person have the sole ability to make the choices when there are spillover
effects because of foods, because of what goes onto somebody else’s property? I think the answer is clearly no about that. Now, can we be so restrictive in these regulations
that we drive up the price of food and we hurt people? Absolutely we can. Have there been EPA decisions like that? I believe there have, although I can’t name
one for you right now. Now, let’s talk about — Fred had this
earlier. What are the kinds of institutions that we
need? How do we get to make these decisions in real
time instead of hanging them up for years? How do we get new classes of pesticides which
are more benign in to replace the bad ones of the past? Ben Wattenberg: Let’s say I am a typical
American consumer and parent. I’m Charlie Consumer. I’m getting my sources of information from
industry groups, I’m getting them from environmental groups, and I’m getting them through the
media. Who am I supposed to believe? Lester Lave: I think that exactly the problem
is that all of the institutions that you’re talking about have at some time in the past
lied to the public, whether you’re talking about — Ben Wattenberg: Government, media, environmentalists,
and industry; they’ve all lied to the public at some point? Lester Lave: Absolutely. That’s a large problem that we have in our
society now is that there is a lack of trust for experts and institutions. The public understands that no matter who
it is who says something that you have to believe that that may not be true. Now, we have a number of institutions that
are catching up and are actually trying to do something now. I think, for example, of the chemical industry’s
care program, which is trying very hard to win itself to the public. Certainly some of the environmental groups
are doing exactly that. Our problem as a society is precisely that
we’ve told lies in the past, and now we have to generate the trust of the public again
if we’re going to get beyond this nonsense we’re in right now where the public doesn’t
believe anybody on anything. Jessica Mathews: There’s something else
to it, which is that scientists, because they work on a frontier between what’s known
and what’s unknown, are very comfortable with uncertainty. They have ways to measure it. It’s a thing for them that is sort of a
positive. If you don’t have uncertainty, you’re
not doing real science. You’re not on the frontier, and so they
think in terms of uncertainty. They measure it. They’re comfortable with it. The whole rest of society operates by trying
to stamp out uncertainty, right? Our legal system. The jury can’t come in and say, “We think
this defendant has an 80 percent probability of being guilty.” Right, it’s yes or no. So all the rest of us are trained to think
black, white, yes, no. And scientists alone have a completely different
approach to uncertainty, and it doesn’t translate in the media at all. Ben Wattenberg: We are running out of time. What I would like to do is go around the room,
starting with Fred, with a brief response, please, to a question we like to ask here,
which is, given this discussion, what do you all agree upon and disagree upon? Fred Smith: I think the main thing we agree
upon is that the current way we’re managing risk in our society has many flaws and that
we desperately need to look at risk in a more intelligent way and reach some way of allowing
America to proceed into the future without frightening itself to death. How we do that is not clear, and we certainly
have enough incentive today. Frederica Perera: I think — I agree very
much with what Jessica said. I think we need, in our communicating with
the public, to spell out what we know and what we don’t know and the assumptions that
we use in the face of that uncertainty. I think, coming from a school of public health,
that we should be protective and preventive in our approach. But we are faced with a situation of catchup
and dealing with chemicals that are already out there. And for the future, I think — I sense an
agreement that pollution prevention is a very good thing. Fred Smith: Lester? Lester Lave: We’ve made an enormous amount
of progress — frankly, much more agreement than I thought before the show. I think we agree that there are some problems
out there in the environment. I think that we agree that getting rid of
all chemicals, all pesticides, is something that we’re not even going to think about
seriously. We have to think about how we manage it. Precisely the way that we do that, whether
it’s through an Environmental Protection Agency or something else, we don’t have
agreement here. But I think that the bogeyman of saying that
chemicals are terrible or chemicals are the best thing that ever happened to you, we’ve
dispelled. Jessica Mathews: I would agree with, I think,
everything that’s been said. I think Lester has made the point several
times and it needs to be emphasized that there is not a very good match between what we understand
to be the biggest risks and what the public perceives to be the biggest risks. It’ll never be perfect and it never should
be, but it could certainly be better. Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Thank you, Jessica Mathews, Frederica Perera,
Lester Lave and Fred Smith. And thank you. We enjoy hearing from our audience. Please send your comments to New River Media,
1150 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036. And we can be reached via email at [email protected] For “Think Tank,” I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production of BJW
Inc., in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.

Comments 3

  • This was from 1994, wow, still relevant.

  • I'll tell you what's NOT real: the idea that we all have to start eating bugs if we want to save the planet lol

  • Here in Germany as well we are exposed to a never ending barrage of environmental fear mongering. The Green party actually profits from this during elections. After Fukushima they saw massive increases of people voting for them. Those of us who are old enough to remember the 80s this has been a constant for at least 40 years. Greenpeace exploited the cute baby seals in the early eighties. We then had imminent nuclear holocaust because of "US imperialism". Then fridges and ACs were going to kill us all, no one would make it out alive. Eggs too were at one time killing us. Spreading fear used to be good for racists, today progressives play the same tune. Cow farts and flying in planes of course, Greens in Europe would love to raise taxes on flights. I could go on, the list is very long. The one thing we need not worry about is the religion of peace.

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