Their Tolerance for Risking Your Life
By A.D. Freudenheim

19 June 2003

Have you ever noticed how many things that most of us would consider abnormal have been labeled “normal” by the institutional voices behind or society (e.g., our government, various NGOs, and our captains of industry)? Sure, that is a broad statement, but think about it; whether it’s the risk of exposure to disease, determinations about the amount of radiation humans can tolerate, or the parts-per-million levels of various chemicals in our food, water, or air ... we rely heavily on some presumably-smart set of folks who have decided what levels are “normal.” In the process, they thereby help to insulate both industry and the government from penalties for harming humans based on allowing these pollutants (for that is the correct term, ultimately) to be present in our lives in higher quantities than might be prudent.

The result of all this imposed normality may be greater risk to human health – about which the stories are legion. American history is filled with passive and active tests on humans, from feeding irradiated corn flakes to people in the 1950s to the recent escapades of Erin Brockovich fighting a California utility company that had poisoned local drinking water. What is starkly true is that, over varying spans of time (a few years or a few decades, depending on the situation) quite the opposite of what scientists and industrialists have suspected has often proved to be the case: our physical tolerance for certain chemicals has been over-stated, and the true effects on people have only been slowly revealed.

One might argue that some of these decisions make a lot of sense. For example, the health benefits of x-rays, when medically justifiable, surely outweigh the downside risk of exposure to radiation during the process. Likewise with medications and the chemical compounds therein; knowing the body’s level of tolerance is important, and while there may be risks in using specific chemicals, these may be necessary dangers when compared to an illness being fought; chemotherapy is a perfect example, since in many ways it poisons the body even as it fights cancer. There is also some truth to the fact that many of the pollutants in question are naturally-occurring; from radiation to petroleum products, there are elements to which humans were exposed well before industrialization.

The difference is one of degree – and a question of who gets to determine the risks involved. When companies pollute our environment or when levels of exposure are raised both without widespread public knowledge or opportunities for choice, the whole question of human tolerance becomes some actuarial decision: the government’s determination that it is willing to risk your life and your health – without your necessarily knowing or understanding those risks – in order to allow someone or something else to proceed. For example, cars are allowed to pollute well beyond what we know to be healthy for the air, but our government (and, probably, alas, most of our citizens) believe that it is worth exposing us individually in exchange for allowing everyone to drive freely (and to drive just about whatever gas-guzzling shitbox we want). This is to say nothing of the overall cost to life on the planet as a result of the reduced ozone layer, which has been slowly eaten away by the crap our machinery, cars included, expels into the atmosphere.

The cost of these pollutants on our health are born by society as a whole. These are the kinds of public health costs that are invariably mentioned in anti-smoking efforts – and yet they are also why the American anti-smoking fetish is so absurd. Smoking actually has a kind of inverted relationship to driving: in smoking, the individual doing the activity suffers most of the damage, while the passive crowd around them has less likelihood of inhaling damaging air than those of us who walk around on the streets of most car-filled American cities. It is American faux-rationalism; smoking is a lot easier to eliminate (despite the once-powerful lobbies) than cars, and so even though cigarettes are less damaging on a cumulative basis, it gives everyone the sense that some action is being taken to improve our quality of life. (Unless you’re a smoker, in which case you’re screwed.)

It is also American faux-rationalism when it comes to risks. We seem to like the obvious, the uncomplicated, the kind of George W. Bush-style black-and-white view of the world. And if we can’t see the risks in front of us, well then, they must not exist. Those citizens who join the military, or take other jobs in our society that are explicit in the dangers they pose to life and limb, well, it is probably less difficult to make the kinds of justifications needed to send an army to war, or a fire fighter into a burning building. That’s they’re job, and they knew the risks. It is when decisions are made for us – based on someone else’s actuarial chart showing (for example) how many Alar-covered apples we can eat without getting ill – that we get into trouble. The government and the apple industry knew that Alar was bad for you; but since they don’t think they’re giving you too much, they will decide on your behalf that it’s worth your risk. In theory, an apple a day keeps the doctor away. But when it’s put in this context, it just doesn’t sound right, does it?[1]

[1] See, for instance: “Industry Propaganda: The
So-Called Alar Scare,” by Kenneth Cook, published 15
February 2000, on
( or
“How They Lie, Pt. 3: The Alar Story, Pt. 1,” published
23 January 1997 by Rachel’s Environment & Health Weekly,
issue #530, available at
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