I watched Commander Chis Hadfield’s TED talk this weekend. He is an astronaut that gave a very compelling talk on perception of risk and how humans respond to that risk, and how we can condition ourselves to change that response. If you haven’t seen it, it is absolutely worth 18 minutes of your life. He talks about going blind during a shuttle mission, and relates that experience to how humans assess risk generally and how we can condition ourselves to responding to situations we perceive as dangerous or scary. Take the time to watch, or read my quick summary below (but if you can, watch his talk—it really is fantastic) and come back for my thoughts on how this relates to communication of risk, the resulting public understanding of that risk, and how that understanding drives policy decisions in environmental regulation:

I started thinking about risk assessment and communication during his discussion of common fears using the example of the fear of spiders. This resonated with me because I share that fear with the majority of people I know, and particularly don’t like walking through spider webs. However, understanding context is important in understanding whether a fear is rational. Commander Hadfield points out that there are approximately 50,000 species of spiders in the world, and only two dozen or so that are truly venomous. In Canada, where the talk was being given, there are 729 species of spiders and only one (the black widow) that is mildly venomous. Black widows won’t kill you; at most they’ll cause discomfort.

Commander Hadfield’s point with the spider web example is that you can change your response to walking through spider webs by understanding these statistics: if you know that black widows are the only venomous spider in your area, and know that black widows don’t build the type of web you walk through, and also know that black widows won’t kill you, then you can condition yourself to not get the heeby jeebies when you walk through a web. It might take you 100 trips through spider webs, but you can do it.

His bigger point is that astronauts take advantage of the ability of humans to condition themselves when training for the unexpected in space. As a result, he didn’t freak out or panic when he found himself temporarily blinded in a spacesuit during a spacewalk. Panic would have made the situation much worse, so conditioning yourself to not panic is key to survival in such situations. This concept was something I have personal experience with, as we took advantage of the ability to condition ourselves to not panic back when I still did deep scuba dives (before I had kids).

What does this have to do with science, law, policy, and the environment?

The answer is that many policy decisions are at least partly informed by public perception of risk, be that risk from a particular legacy hazardous substance, risk from emissions associated with industrial activities, or risk from toxics in water, food, or manufactured products. In an era of quickly and easily disseminated information, I think that science communicators need to do a better job of putting risk in context, just as Commander Hadfield does when talking about spider webs.

For instance, many of our regulatory decisions are based on excess cancer risk levels that are measured in the one in ten thousand to a one in a million range, meaning that we’re making regulatory decisions that have exceedingly small impacts on an individual level. These thresholds are important to consider in the context of the history of the regulatory and legislative decisions that led to the use of these types of risk levels. These include the passage of the Delaney clause of the Food Drug and Cosmetics Act in 1958 followed by the Cranberry Scare of 1959 (both of these events are aptly summarized here), the Supreme Court’s ruling on a challenge to OSHA’s benzene exposure limit, and the evolution of the use of the one in ten thousand to one in a million risk range by EPA under CERCLA. Quite frankly, I can’t blame the general public with respect to the fear of cancer, and I share that fear. Cancer is scary, and the visible effects and impacts on humans are real and often tragic. But, when placed in the overall context that an individual in the United States has a 40% chance of developing cancer over a lifetime, and a one in four to one in five chance of dying from cancer, the one in a million risk level is the difference between a 40% and a 40.0001% chance of getting cancer in your lifetime.

So, is it time to revisit the one in a million risk level as an environmental regulatory driver? In Washington, we’re about to spend $300 to $500 million remediating the Duwamish River based on cleanup levels established using a one in a million excess cancer risk, a level mandated by state law. By way of context, this is the lower end of the range allowed under federal law, which allows a risk range of one in ten thousand to one in a million. There are good arguments that a lower expenditure will result in the same level of improvement to the environment, so, instead of committing to spending $500 million now to try and meet a one in a million cleanup level, maybe Washington should consider spending $150 million on the “hot spots” in the Duwamish to meet the one in ten thousand risk level allowed under federal law, and then dedicate money to address other issues or sources of cancer in the affected populations. This approach would require changes to state law only and would allow Washington to extract as much environmental benefit from dollars spent on cleanup as possible. It would also lessen the financial impact on many businesses located along the Duwamish that are potentially liable for the cleanup solely because they are current owners of property along the river—not because they have any connection with the hazardous substances being cleaned up.

By way of further example, I think Washington should carefully consider whether it makes any sense to require potentially massive hikes to utility bills to fund upgrades to water treatment plants to try to meet increasingly stringent water quality criteria. Maybe we should consider avoiding those expenditures altogether and funding infrastructure projects to address stormwater quality or quantity, or controlling the diffuse sources of toxics found in municipal effluent prior to those toxics entering our water treatment systems.

Our policy choices regarding cancer risk are rooted in forty year old problems and examples. Our current environmental challenges are modern, and are shaped by the application of that forty year old regulatory framework to our economy and environment. I think it’s time to step back and reconsider that environmental regulatory framework, with an eye on rational assessment of today’s risks, while not losing sight of the need to make sure expenditures based on regulatory requirements result in proportional environmental benefit.