RESOLVE TO THROW the PreCAUTIONary Principle TO THE WIND

Happy New Year! 

At least we haven't started fighting about how to say that, yet. So, have you made your New Year's resolutions? If not, may I suggest one? I'd like to suggest we throw a few things to the wind, starting with an excess of caution.


Which of these things increases your chance of getting cancer?

  • Taking a trip to Africa for a month
  • Drinking a Diet Coke with aspartame (Equal)
  • Getting a mammogram
  • Eating GMO rice or corn

Would you be surprised if I said, "all of them"?


Still from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

Still from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

You may not be surprised, but you should object. For years now, we've been bombarded with hundreds of messages that cancer is caused by everything from the lining of our drink cans, to shellfish, to our bras. The number of things that cause cancer is seemingly only rivaled by the number of things people believe, rightly or wrongly, to cure it.  

One of the culprits of this proliferation of cancer fears is a thing with the benign sounding name, the precautionary principle. And until I learned more about it, I would have said that was a very good principle indeed. It sounds like the kind of principle a belt and suspenders kind of person like me ought to subscribe to, doesn't it? The idea is that if something could-- in any hypothetical way-- increase risk, then we treat it as an actual risk. We do so as a precaution. That sounds reasonable, doesn't it? Sure it does.

It's a good idea to behave this way when you are dealing with complete unknowns. If a mysterious fluid is oozing from out of a frozen meteorite, it's probably best to not poke it with a stick, just out of an excess of caution that it might turn into a giant pulsating blob that devours most of the town before you can transport it to Siberia. (In general, I am in favor of poking things with sticks, but you have to know the risks.) This is why astronauts collecting rock samples from the moon had to go to some lengths to assure they were isolated until they could be thoroughly examined. Turns out moon rocks do not harbor alien life. No one has ever caught so much as a cold from them, but it was still a good idea to take precautions until we could be sure. 


On the other hand, if we all do a very banal thing on a daily basis, with no real risk making itself known for years, and someone comes along and points out a hypothetical or theoretical risk associated with that thing, should we stop doing it out of an excess of caution? That is exactly what some propose. Here's just a sampling of some of the things we've seen come out of an overly broad application of the precautionary principle:

  • GMOs are labeled or banned outright all over the globe following the precautionary principle
  • a vaccine education plan is discontinued in Japan, leading to a drop in vaccinations and increased real disease
  • women fearing ionizing radiation avoid getting mammograms
  • Parents, fearing dental fluorosis and pituitary cancer convince local government to vote against municipal fluoridation of water, resulting in more children with cavities in Canada 
  • an effective pesticide is banned, increasing the real risk of Zika, dengue, and malaria
  • various consumer products from tampons to breast implants to drink containers are phased out or just banned due to often unsubstantiated health claims
  • millions are spent on developing medications that never come to market
  • Nuclear energy demonized and being phased out even as our need for cleaner energy sources is increasing
  • Interest groups have called for limits of radio transmitters, power plants, power lines, and other assumed EMF sources, sometimes resulting in significant hardship for people who need these installations.

We as humans are a fearful lot, and with good reason. As animals, we aren't particularly fearsome. Look at us! Our claws are flat, brittle stumps compared to lions or bears. Even a small rhino laughs at our pitiful size and lack of any armor or weaponry. We aren't as fast as a leopard. Our fur is so sparse we would freeze at temps wolves handle like a spring day. We humans are all too aware that we are merely upright naked apes, trying to survive in a world built to kill us. So we've learned to protect ourselves and to predict risks and avert them, before they make us their lunch. We build houses, wear clothes, light fires, construct walls and fences... all in the name of keeping the dangers at bay. It's a really good idea, in the natural world, to be cautious about unknown dangers. If a stick appears in a walkway, it's not a good idea to pick it up until you've checked it for eyes.

A rattlesnake warning sign near visitor center at El Malpais State Park, NM - From author's collection 

A rattlesnake warning sign near visitor center at El Malpais State Park, NM - From author's collection 

Panama dead in coffin.jpg

Likewise, reaching into a dark hole with bare hands is likely to result in swelling up, developing a fever, chills, paralysis and death. Poking around with a stick first to check for dangerous arachnids is a smart move. Our ancestors were the ones that lived long enough to breed, and they did that by not eating berries they hadn't first seen someone else eat and survive. They handed down those smart, cautious genes to us. Why do you think it is that people marvel at Evil Knevil, or make heroes of brave Soldiers? It is in part because they are rare. So what do the rest of us do to handle the angst of living in a world whose very design threatens to kill us?

Today even poor people generally live in homes many times safer than anything those long forgotten ancestors could create. Farmers and ranchers deliver us plenty of safe, healthy food to keep us fat and fit. Doctors treat ills that used to kill us but are mere inconveniences today. In such a safe and almost cosseted world, we don't need to be as cautious as our ancestors were on a daily basis, but that inborn caution does not go away. We still fear the lion and the poison berry. 

Yew plants contain a poison in every part, but especially in the seeds.

Yew plants contain a poison in every part, but especially in the seeds.

The poison berry for our ancestor was an actual pretty red berry, tempting the hungry hunter-gatherer with its bright color. If she was lucky, she got the Kimchee squats for a week. If she were less lucky, she or her family could end up dead. There is a reason Deadly Nightshade is called Deadly Nightshade. Today we shop at the Save A Lot or Safeway where all the berries are of the limited varieties that we have safely eaten for thousands of years, strawberries, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, and raspberries.

Cranberries, while traditional and perfectly safe, are not a super food. Still, they're pretty.

Cranberries, while traditional and perfectly safe, are not a super food. Still, they're pretty.

GMO strawberry.jpg

Not a mistletoe or deadly anything in the bins. Safe. You would think our modern hunter-gatherer and her happy hunter-gatherer-in-training, seated in her safe, metal seat on wheels, would be happy and calm. But last week, Ms. Hunter-Gatherer read that some papaya have been produced using genetic modification. Ms. Hunter-Gatherer doesn't really understand how that works. She has other things to think about during the few hours a day she has between child care, her job, and the online courses she is taking to finish her degree. Someone told her this, and it is slightly worrying to her as a mother, the way not knowing if the stock market is going to crash is slightly worrying to the average bank account owner. Two products sit in bins. One, the Rainbow Papaya from Hawaii, has a little sticker next to its name. The other, a smaller papaya grown in South America, does not. The one from South America doesn't look as appetizing, and it costs a few cents more, but it doesn't have that worrying sticker. Ms. Hunter-Gatherer remembers the long ago ancestor and the pretty red berries, and she goes for the one without the sticker. The precautionary principle, in practice.

By Scott Bauer, USDA ARS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Scott Bauer, USDA ARS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It may not seem particularly dangerous, one mom making a single selection based on a single factor out of many. She probably also considers things like cost, packaging, taste, social factors, calorie count, even color. This one factor is just a single comparison point. Yet if lots of moms make this choice, based on this one factor, Rainbow Papayas will drop in price. Farmers in Hawaii will pay a steep price for too much caution. It seems hard to imagine that one can be too cautious. After all, if the papaya is causing cancer, then the farmers ought not to be growing it. The sooner they go out of business, or switch to a safer crop, the better, right?

Except it isn't causing cancer. And papayas are big part of the rich agricultural heritage of Hawaii. What about the farmer and his family and workers? Nothing in today's interconnected world is so simple.

How likely is it you will be killed by a meteorite? A million to one? A billion to one? At what vanishingly small likelihood do we get to use the shorthand, "You will not die of a meteorite?" This is not an academic question. It's a real question real scientists and public policy people along with their lawyers have to ask constantly. Someone, at some point in our history has actually died from being struck by a meteorite. It landed square on their head. Pow! Bang! Dead. So it seems that it is actually possible to die this way. Moreover, there are lots of meteorites that manage to survive our atmosphere to land on Earth. So it is altogether possible that you might.

Meteor Crater, Arizona - Credit: 2 Grumpy People

Meteor Crater, Arizona - Credit: 2 Grumpy People

I went out yesterday and didn't even think of a meteorite striking me. Didn't happen. I feel perfectly safe saying "I will not die of a meteorite." I don't fear circumstances proving me wrong. I feel perfectly safe saying my son, my mother, my friends, and in fact no one in my circle of acquaintance will ever die of a meteorite impact. I don't have a crystal ball. I don't see the future. And I am not a betting person. But meteorites just don't rank up there in my risk assessment on a daily basis. When doing risk assessment matrices for our military training, I never once included in the Risks square, meteor shower. I never felt the need to explain what mitigation I was using for that particular risk and no commander ever kicked back my assessment for failing to mention it. Wonder why? Because the US Army does not use the Precautionary Principle model for risk assessment. They use a real world outcome based risk likelihood model. And so do most people about most things. Yes, you do, whether you realize it or not. Wanna bet?

To be fair, there isn't a lot anyone can do to protect themselves from meteorites. They can go right through the roof of your house. They are often completely unexpected and untracked by any satellite. So, there aren't any precautions we can really take, save maybe living underground. Let's put away the meteorite, and look at something a little more relatable.

What is the risk you will be hit by a car? When I was a kid, we played this game we called car tag. It was really stupid. As a car drives past the house, you run out and smack the car. Where you hit it, and how fast it was going, determined your score. We got other kids to play this stupid game, too. None of us thought we were assessing risks, but we were. The fact that you got more points for hitting a faster moving car at the front, instead of a slow moving one toward the rear, proves we thought about risks, even if we didn't take them seriously enough. As an adult, I do not play this risky and frankly stupid game. I apologize for having helped popularize it.

You have to have real guts to score a perfect one.

You have to have real guts to score a perfect one.

I actually worry about getting hit by a car. I look both ways before crossing. My son recently got hit while riding his bicycle home from college. He was following the rules of the road and the light was in his favor, but it was darkening outside, and the car turning left didn't expect a cyclist to be crossing it its path. Risk is real. It would be hard to figure the exact percentages of risk in that situation, but it is easy to see how several quantifiable risk factors played their part. How could you reduce the risk to zero? Well, you might think that staying at home would reduce your odds of being hit by a car, but still, those risks aren't exactly zero. 

So lets say, the closest you could get to zero would be to remain indoors in your cave house, far away from human habitation. Can we agree, for the sake of the illustration of a point, that this is our arbitrary zero point? Now, step outside your front door. 

lonely cave man.jpg
meteor danger extreme .jpg

Now, step outside your front door. 

You just increased your risk by a factor of at least 1000x. Yet your risk of being hit by a car is still almost zero. Is it .000001 in 10,000,000? Is it 1 in 10,000,000? Your risk has not appreciably gone up. You will not be hit by a car. So if we set our lonely caveman as arbitrary 0 point, what is arbitrary maximum risk?

Let's say, you jumped from an overpass into rush hour traffic on a busy highway in Dallas-Fort Worth. The cars are traveling an average of 65-70 MPH, too fast to stop on a dime with no room to move into another lane to avoid hitting your suddenly appearing body. Exempting the extremely unlikely scenario wherein you fall exactly upright on the painted lines in the space between two cars, and all of the cars passing you stay perfectly within their lane of travel... you will be hit by a car 100% of the time.

So, somewhere between falling body and lonely caveman is your real risk. If you are inside your home, right now, wherever you live, you are at nearly zero risk. It isn't zero risk. Lonely caveman is at our arbitrary zero risk. But your risk is extremely low. Maybe it's one in 9,999,950. So, if someone tells you that stepping outside of your door statistically increases your risk of getting hit by a car or a meteorite, are they lying to you? No. It statistically increases your risk. If we record the results of stepping out of their homes of 10 million people, likely one of them will actually get hit by a car. When you stepped out, all of you experienced both a statistical and real increase in risk. Had you all stayed inside watching Monty Python reruns, none of you would have been hit. But, did your personal real risk go up? No. Not really. Maybe not at all. Who knows why that other person got hit. What was the actual risk, not just the statistical risk? Maybe that unlucky fool who didn't like Monty Python (he deserved it!) lived very close to a busy intersection, and you don't. Maybe they had a girlfriend who was a bit crazy, owned a car, and loved Monty Python. Who knows what other characteristics may have made that person more likely to be hit. Statistically, it is more likely you will be hit with a car if you are outside your home. And, statistically, if infinite people are outside their home, one of them will get hit, maybe more than one. 

So, you better stay inside your home at all times, right?

If a government agent ordered you to never leave your underground home anymore, you might be excused for thinking they had gone too far. That is not to say that if you live on a busy intersection, you might not want to make sure your house is set back from the road, and maybe plant a big tree between you and the curb. And if a meteorite is tracked approaching your area, it is wise to notify the National Guard, just to as a precaution. If it lands near your home, following the precautionary principle and not poking it with a stick just makes sense. In fact, if you are an astronaut whose job it is to actually sample a real meteorite, it probably makes sense to apply a bit of precaution and use a special double locked sample box and jettison it into the sun if it starts leaking something that looks like lime Jell-O. But can we all agree that in 2017, we don't need to be quite so cautious when weighing whether we should add fluoride to our children's toothpaste? It's a big ask, I know, but it's a new year. Why not throw the preCAUTIONary principle to the wind? Or just exercise a little more common sense in applying it?