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<i>Risk:</i> A Practical Guide - 2003-03-23

The war with Iraq has heightened fears of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. And while no one can predict when, where or how an attack might take place, it is possible to understand more about the psychology of fear, and how to recognize which threats are most likely to do us real harm. Those are the main themes of a new book called Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. The book was written by David Ropeik and George Gray of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.

It's hard to turn on the television or pick up a newspaper these days without feeling there's danger lurking everyplace.

"President Bush has ordered the country's terror alert raised to orange, that's the highest level," and that has certainly raised everyone's fears as well."
"And now a great reason to think twice if you take unregulated diet supplements because after taking a supplement, Jennifer Rosenthal suffered complete liver failure."
"Health officials around the world are scrambling to contain a new and seemingly powerful disease, a pneumonia-like illness called severe acute respiratory symptom."

Those headlines are enough to make many people long for simpler, safer times, when they didn't feel threatened by terrorists, or disease epidemics or harmful medications. But are they in greater peril today?

"Yes and no. In 1900 the average person in the developed world lived to about 45. Now they live to about 75 or 80," says David Ropeik, the co-author of Risk, a book containing both good and bad news about how secure the world really is. "Cumulatively the statistics suggest we live in a safer world. Diseases are being eradicated. Infant mortality is improving, even in the developing world. And yet we live in a world that's different because the pace of technology in coming up with new processes and products, which have many benefits but also some of them have risks, is much faster than it used to be," he says. "And we live in a world in which there's mass media everywhere, and so it seems like there are more risks around because we're hearing about more of them."

And while the threat of international terrorism heightens the fear level right now, David Ropeik believes it's important to understand the factors shaping that fear. "Before September eleventh, 2001, it happened to Americans elsewhere - embassies, military bases. Now we think it could happen to us, and so the fear goes up," he says. "So, that's one. The other one is the lack of control. When we give up control over where we can go to be safe, how we can live our lives to be safe, that feeling of lack of control raises our fear."

David Ropeik also says people are less afraid of natural dangers than of those created by humans. In Risk, he and George Gray survey a range of threats, including biological weapons like anthrax. It's still too soon for statistics on just how likely or widespread those threats might be, suggests the book, but the authors do say it would be difficult to carry out a biological attack affecting large numbers of people.

Other threats can be statistically analyzed, and the results are often surprising. Take nuclear radiation as an example. "Nuclear radiation, it turns out, is a weaker carcinogen than people believe. Yes, it can cause damage to atoms and then molecules, and it can lead to cancer," he says. "But it turns out it does so weakly. And that's based on the fact that they followed 90,000 people who survived the high exposures in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and out of 8000 cancers in those people, now 60 years or so later, only 500 can be attributed to radiation exposure."

David Ropeik says there's also been unjustified panic over artificial sweeteners, or saccharine. "There was a study testing for the possible carcinoginicity of saccharine, and one species of rat, and only the males in that species, developed liver cancer, which by the way is the most common cancer in all the lab rats tested for everything. Out came the news that there was an association with cancer, and the stuff was banned in the U.S.," he says. "And the fact that subsequently dozens of repeated attempts to reproduce that result in rats and other species, can't [reproduce it], and it's been approved worldwide, and it's safe to use here now--that didn't make the news, did it?"

On the other hand, eating too much sugar helps cause obesity, which is among the biggest health risks cited in the book. "Being overweight, drinking too much alcohol and smoking kill hundreds of thousands of Americans, millions of people in the world, who fret over smaller risks," he says. "But a risk with which we're familiar scares us less than one which is newlike mad cow disease in the UK. And a risk that kills people here and there over time, such as obesity, doesn't alarm us as much as a risk that kills a whole bunch of people in one place, such as the terrorism attacks."

Beardsley: "You also write that we fear grizzly, horrifying deaths more than less dramatic deaths. Hence sharks versus heart disease?"
Ropeik: "That's the classic one. The nastiness of the way you go makes us more afraid of that risk, regardless of the statistical likelihood of being eaten by a shark, even if you go swimming in the ocean. And just the opposite. A lot of the lack of fear of heart disease and obesity and alcohol use is, they do not have in our minds have that 'That's an awful way to go, tenor.'"

David Ropeik believes a range of other risks need to be taken more seriously as well. These include common medical mistakes like writing the wrong prescription, and indoor pollutants such as mold or paint vapors. Then there's the risk of worrying too much about risks. "Our immune system is suppressed when we're extra worried, and we're more vulnerable to all infectious disease, getting them, getting them worse, having them last longer, and if we're weakened to begin with, dying from them. Stress, worry, fear is a physical risk in and of itself," he says.

David Ropeik and his co-author relied on government statistics as well as a wide range of experts to compile the information in their book. They hope the results will help readers make informed choices, so they can separate out the overrated risks, and those they can do nothing about, from risks that that are too frequently ignoredand often easy to control.

"Risk" was published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.