Navigating and Mitigating the Risks to Human Life
10/15/2019
Alan Hahn
Illustration of a man’s large black shoe inches away from stepping on a slippery banana peel on a wood brown floor with a green wall in background.

The truth is, whether it is a man-made or naturally-occurring chemical, climate, or a number of other potential threats, risks are everywhere. Are we facing more risks today than in the past?

It seems as if the threats are becoming more numerous and ominous. But are they? How concerned should we be about these risks? Some perspective may be helpful.

 

Environmental and Ecological Risks

Environmental risks are not new; they are, however, more quantifiable. Environmental risks used to come from naturally-occurring toxins that were not understood (e.g., lead, mercury, etc.). Nature presents us with risks in the form of extreme weather – hot, cold, rain, snow, floods, droughts, etc. These, too, are far better understood, forecasted, tracked, and mitigated through, among other actions, sheltering and controlled indoor climate.

We tend to forget those risks we have successfully mitigated because we are too focused on some other potential risk. For example, death by extreme weather events in the United States has dropped from 94 people per million in 1900 to 5 people per million currently. Put another way, global deaths from natural disasters peaked in 1931 at 3.71 million people; in 2018, it was 10,809 people (see ourworldindata.org).

 

Establishing Environmental Risk Factors

Our environmental agencies (federal and state) typically establish standards based on risk factors. Usually, the question when establishing these risks is, “How much risk is acceptable?” Should the risk be established such that only 1 in 100,000 people might get cancer from the exposure? Maybe it should be 1 person in 1,000,000? These are social decisions based on environmental and economic factors.

The additional risk is considered to be acceptable or “de minimis” if it is less than 1 in 1,000,000, which equates to 0.0001%. If the overall risk of developing cancer in one’s lifetime is 25% (or 0.25), the environmental contaminant would raise one’s risk to 25.0001%, or negligible.

The decision of how much cleanup is necessary also involves risk. For example, if a chemical is in the soil and groundwater and the remediation efforts have successfully reduced the chemical concentrations such that the risk is 1 in 100,000, what has to happen to reduce that risk to 1 in 1,000,000? Whatever actions are required to reduce that risk carry risk. Removal of additional contaminants may mean more trips to a landfill with “contaminated soil.” This drive time and use of heavy equipment involves risk.

When we consider potential risk from chemical exposure, it is based on toxicological data, models, etc. And typically, this includes “safety factors” to account for uncertainty in the analysis. In other words, it is hypothetical and based on good science, but it is hypothetical, nonetheless.

 

Putting Chemical Risks into Perspective

Dr. Bruce Ames is a name very familiar to anyone involved in evaluating chemical risks. Dr. Ames developed the Ames test for chemical mutagens. He has devoted much of his career to understanding cancer and aging.

In 1989, the American Council on Science and Health, with journalist Walter Cronkite, produced a video called Big Fears, Little Risks. Dr. Ames points out that we face many risks, but lifestyle, including smoking and diets, are the biggest risk we face and can control.

Dr. Ames also points out that while many people believe that carcinogens are rare – they are not. Naturally-occurring pesticides produced by plants as a mechanism for survival are ingested by humans every day.

Dr. Ames has maintained that cancer is a degenerative disease of old age. The fact that cancer rates were rising in the latter part of the 20th century, Ames argued, was not the result of an increase in pollution but of the fact that people were living longer.

Talking about how plants use natural, carcinogenic pesticides to survive, Dr. Ames said, “Do we want to worry about low doses of carcinogens…I think probably not. In any case, man-made pollution is tiny, very tiny compared to the background of natural substances. If you are really worried about tiny doses of carcinogens, which I’m not, one would look at these natural things first.”

 

Everyday Risks to Our Lives

While we may be concerned when we are told of the impending weather system or the findings of the exposure to a chemical, we give little consideration to everyday risks. These are genuine risks for which we have mortality data. The National Safety Council has a long list of risks and associated accidents and the “lifetime odds” of mortality associated with these events. These risks are far greater than 1 in 100,000 people or 1 in 1,000,000 people.

  • There is a 1 in 242 chance of dying in a car accident (though declining steadily over the decades). If you are an occupant of a “special agricultural vehicle,” then the chances of a fatality are 1 in 13,114.
  • Falling will claim 1 in 269 people. Your odds are better if this fall involves a bed, chair, or other furniture; 1 in 5,508.
  • Eating is essential for our life, but it, too, carries risk because 1 in 4,812 will die from “inhalation and ingestion of food causing obstruction of the respiratory tract.”
  • While, as every farmer knows, honey bees and other pollinators are an essential part of growing crops, 1 in 66,297 people will die from contact with hornets, wasps, and bees.

Since the dawn of our existence on this planet, humankind has navigated and attempted to mitigate (in many cases successfully) countless risks that threaten our livelihood and lives.

The reality is, our lives are at risk from the moment of our birth until that final moment when one of life’s many risks finally catches up with us. While news of the most-recent risk to our stay on the planet may sound plenty scary, the real risks we face are far more pedestrian and, as Dr. Ames points out, within our control.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alan Hahn is an Environmental Professional and Business Development Manager at The Dragun Corporation in Farmington Hills, Michigan.  

The opinions stated herein are not necessarily those of GreenStone Farm Credit Services.

To view the article in the online 2019 Fall Partners Magazine, click here.

 


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