Why risk assessments are crazy

Risk Assessment Wrong
In the past, I’ve argued that risk assessment is a proper tool to use in reaching decisions aimed at promoting sustainability.


Now, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve been reading Sandra Steingraber’s powerful book Living Downstream: A Scientist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment (Vintage Books, $19.50 in paperback). She writes about how cancer is connected to what we manufacture and how we pollute. The connections that she details are so pervasive, that I think they rule out using risk assessment in decision making.


Risk assessment is primarily an end-of-pipe calculation. Essentially it asks how many cases of cancer, how many dead bodies, are we prepared to accept as a result of this manufacturing process, or that level of pollution.


For instance, is one death in a million people an acceptable price to pay for the benefits of manufacturing a product that could reduce by 4 per cent the cost of building an average home? Or is one death in 500,000 people an acceptable risk? Or one death in 150,000 people?


The picture Steingraber paints of the human landscape is so blanketed with connections to cancer that this kind of calculation is simply crazy. If 20 people in 500,000 are already dying from cancer precipitated by substances we have released into the environment, why would you want to add one more death?


In fact, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, based in Lyon, France, at least 80 per cent all cancer is attributable to environmental influences — what we drink, inhale, eat, interact with, or touch. The agency is an office of the World Health Organization.


To put it another way, at least 80 per cent of all cancer is caused by what we release into the water, spray on our food, emit into the air, touch (such as the degreasers perchloroethylene or trichloroethylene, used in cleaning machine parts and in dry cleaning), or alter (such as the ozone layer which has increased ultraviolet radiation and melanoma skin cancer).


Instead of asking what is the risk of death, we should be asking is this new product or process safe? If it can’t be shown to be safe, then we should say, « No more deaths, at whatever ratio, are acceptable.” In short, we should apply the precautionary principle, and throw out risk assessments.


But our governments haven’t done that, and it seems to me passing strange, because everyone I ask is worried, and every opinion poll I read tells me that people fear for their health because of what we’re doing to the environment.


Why, then, haven’t our governments responded? Why do they still regulate new products on the basis of risk assessment?


I asked Dorothy Rosenberg, a 63-year-old, life-long activist who recently completed her Ph.D in adult education related to environmental health. She’s director of a course on environmental health, transformative learning, and policy change, that will be given in fourteen sessions beginning next Tuesday. The course, to be held at the University of Toronto, is sponsored by the Women’s Network on Health and the Environment and the university’s Centre for Health Promotion.


I was intrigued that one of the themes underlying the course is environmental justice.


What’s that, I asked? And would it apply here? Indeed it would apply, she said. Environmental justice deals with people who have been marginalized. People who lack the power to resist, or who have not been able to organize with others to fight back.


In the case of cancer caused by « environmental influences,’’ environmental justice is about refusing to accept the excuse that it’s okay to release something into the environment if it hasn’t been proved to cause harm — as if it makes sense to demand a dead body before you prohibit something.


Rosenberg is angry. I like that. It’s a spur to any struggle for justice. If you want to find out more about the course, call the Women’s Network at (416) 928-0880. The registration fee is $375, but, says Rosenberg, if you can demonstrate need, you can negotiate

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