Sunday, March 16, 2014

Technology Risk:

The More Things Change...

I was taking advantage of some wintery weather days a few weeks ago to try to go through some of the boxes that have been accumulating in my basement for the last...well, I'm ashamed to admit it, the last 20 or 30 years...or so.  As I changed jobs and moved around, files were brought down to the basement "until I have time to go through them."  All I can say is that anything that reaches my basement seems to have a remarkably long half-life!

Having finally reached the point where something really had to be done, I dutifully carted up the first Xerox box worth of papers.  It turned out to be a box of papers on risk issues, mostly dating from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. 

To put the contents of that box in context, I should mention that, in the early 1980s, I worked for the Congressional Research Service (CRS) of the US Library of Congress.  Among other issues I handled in those days was the at-that-time emerging issue of risk assessment and management.  While risk assessment was not new in the nuclear field or for the aircraft industry, the Congress at that time was grappling with the issue of how technological risks should be considered by government agencies.  As a result of that work, my interest in risk went far beyond the confines of nuclear power.

Therefore, when I left CRS and joined the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, I continued to work, on and off, on risk-related issues, and I continued to squirrel away news items and scholarly papers on a variety of risk-related issues and notes from meetings I attended on the subject, as well as a few papers of my own from that period.  Going through them years later was like opening a time capsule.

First, there were the issues that seem to have been resolved, one way or another, and have disappeared from the dialogue.  When was the last time you heard about Alar, a plant growth regulator that was claimed to be carcinogenic and was banned in 1989?  Does anyone remember the Tylenol poisoning that led to tamper-proof caps on foods and drugs?  Who even debates the effects of secondhand smoke any more? 

More interesting, though, were the issues that don't seem to have changed one bit.  Most of the nuclear issues fall into that category.  I found papers on the health effects around Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, radiation and hormesis, BEIR V, and radon in homes.  I found one interesting map that tried to attribute changes in SAT scores to radioactive fallout from weapons testing (the map appeared in an article that debunked such theories).  I found discussions of childhood leukemia around operating nuclear power plants.

Some of the non-nuclear issues also seem to have a remarkable persistence.  Food issues, such as the use of artificial sweeteners and the pros and cons of natural foods, were in the news.  The question of whether electromagnetic fields caused cancer was being bandied about the press.  The concern about global warming was already on our radar screens (although, in those days, the term climate change wasn't used).  One pundit even asserted that he thought that global warming would counterbalance the nuclear winter.

Nor have the "generic issues" associated with risk assessment and management changed much.  How should different risks be assessed?  What are the ethics of making decisions based on cost-benefit analyses?  How can risk be communicated to the public?  What does the incidence of cancer in test animals mean for human beings?  How do different countries approach risk issues?  Why don't regulations always have the desired effect?  (For example, some analysts noted that people would drive more as Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards were raised and the cost of driving decreased.)  How can over-regulation be prevented?  I saved one amusing spoof that detailed a slew of hypothetical dangers of pencils.

I suppose that I ought to look at all of this and come to some profound conclusion.  I guess the conclusion is probably in the eye of the beholder.  I know some will see persistent over-regulation.  Others will come to the opposite conclusion, bemoaning how entrenched interests always seem to delay the implementation of protective requirements.

I can find cases to support either conclusion, but on the whole, I think this walk back into history simply proves how complex and multifaceted many of these technology risk issues are.  Risk issues are resolved, but usually very slowly, and new events and new evidence can delay resolution, or even reopen closed issues.  These facts, of course, do not give regulators a free pass for moving slowly or being overly conservative, but they do point out the difficulties regulators face in assessing such difficult issues.

This, I might remind you, is only the first of...again, I say with shame...many boxes of old papers, so next time we have a spell of bad weather and I have a chance to open another box of old treasures, I may have a report on another look into history, perhaps next time on a strictly nuclear issue.



  1. Do the world a favor.  Put the good ones up on a "classics" blog, perhaps on Wordpress if Blogger is unfriendly to archives of page scans.  Bring these things out of obscurity and into the light... especially that one about pencils, it's bound to be an excellent teaching exercise in both science and writing classes.

    1. Thanks for your interest. Unfortunately, the material is copyrighted, so I can't scan and post. I can provide the reference information for anyone who wishes to track down the original article. It originally appeared in The American Record, Vol. 24, No. 8, 1989.

    2. Excerpts can be posted under fair use.  Even entire articles can be posted so long as they're not for gain and do not affect the market for the original, but of course that's risky.

    3. Yes, I could have included excerpts, but that was a little beyond the focus of this piece. If there is an appropriate place to use a thought from this essay in a future blog, I will keep it in mind.

  2. Another note from a friend who seems to want to fly under the radar:

    RE the Tylenol poisoning - note: the perpetrator of the poisoning, in which I believe seven people died, was never identified. The case remains open, and the J&J folks have sure not forgotten.