The danger of trying to make life safer

Posted: Wednesday, August 23, 2000

Is too much safety bad for us?

That's the kind of thing I've often ruminated on when, for instance, a restful moment on the beach has been shattered by the unnecessary blast of a lifeguard's whistle.

It turns out, however, to be a question that scientists are taking seriously.

Last spring, Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health, wrote an article titled "Can Too Much Safety Be Hazardous?" in which she attacked excessive adherence to the "precautionary principle."

Her case in point was the effort to ban chlorine because of its possible adverse effects on wildlife, without assessing its importance in ensuring the safety of drinking water, creating vital pharmaceuticals and, indeed, the manufacture of "the agricultural pesticides that enable us to have a food supply rich in cancer-fighting fruits and vegetables."

Her conclusion was that were no known health risks from the current regulated use of chlorine, enormous benefits and plenty of dangers in banning it.

Chlorine hasn't (yet) reached the front burner of public consciousness, and it may seem like an obscure example, but there are plenty of other cases involving health, environment and other concerns indicating that we have not done well as a society at calculating the costs and benefits of different risks.

Traffic safety is a rich source of illustrations. The thousands of additional highway deaths that Ralph Nader and others predicted would occur if interstate speed limits were raised didn't happen. To cite just two: Seat belts and air bags have not saved as many lives as predicted and antilock brakes have not decreased highway accidents.

While no one can be sure why these and other anomalies continue to confound, some researchers have put forward some interesting theories suggesting why it's so hazardous to estimate the effects of safety regulations and engineering.

One problem is the failure to recognize that there are almost always trade-offs, often unrecognized, as indicated in the chlorine example. John D. Graham, director of the Center for Risk Analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health, lists more than a dozen other examples in his book Risk vs. Risk.

People who come into a hospital for care, for example, run the risk of getting certain hard-to-treat diseases that you can catch only in a hospital.

Removing toxic sulfur dioxide from smoke creates tons of toxic sulfur sludge to be disposed of.

Banning of the fungicide EDB because of its cancer risk increased the amount of naturally occurring fungi called aflatoxins on grains and nuts, which turned out to be more carcinogenic than the fungicide.

And the list goes on.

Another Harvard scholar, professor of law W. Kip Viscusi, has suggested in his book "Fatal Tradeoffs" that safety regulations produce a "lulling effect," which helps explain his conclusion that the regulations of the Consumer Product Safety Commission have no measurable beneficial effect.

"Childproof" caps did not reduce accidental poisonings, in part, he postulates, because the caps gave people a false sense of security, "lulling" them into being more careless in storing medicines. (Another problem is that the caps are often so hard for adults to get off that they often leave the bottles open.)

Perhaps the most intriguing theory is the one put forward by John Adams of University College in London, who hypothesizes in Risk that people decide on the level of risk they regard as acceptable, then adjust to improved safety by becoming more reckless. He calls it "risk compensation."

Under his theory, if cars become safer, people drive them more carelessly. This could explain why countries without laws requiring seat belts often experience a greater decrease in highway fatalities than countries that did enact such laws.

Maybe, he suggests somewhat puckishly, we have this safety-engineering thing backwards. Perhaps the safest possible vehicle would be made out of cardboard, have bad brakes and feature a sharp spike sticking up from the steering column. That would make drivers be really careful.

To be sure, I have not stopped buckling up, nor have I discarded my bike helmet. However, I now prefer beaches without lifeguards. If they're marginally more dangerous, at least they're infinitely more restful a trade-off I can live with.

David Boldt is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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