Putting Public Health Risks in Proper Perspective

Published March 1, 2008

When it comes to distinguishing real health risks from trivial or simply bogus risks, American consumers have a great deal to learn.

In the media, the real and the hypothetical risks get blurred–or worse, the non-risks get so hyped that they sound like major causes of preventable disease and death.

Take the current national obsession about the alleged risks of chemicals known as phthalates, used in manufacturing flexible plastics–used in making products ranging from children’s toys to medical devices.

Some very vocal advocates, particularly in California, have convinced policymakers that phthalates are a major health threat to kids who play with rubber duckies and put them in their mouths. California just passed a law to ban the use of phthalates in the manufacture of toys, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has introduced a similar bill that would ban these chemicals nationwide.

The truth is that phthalates have no known adverse health effects. Yet for parents hearing about these “toxins” and “carcinogens” in children’s products, phthalates are perceived as a major risk. There is rarely attention given, though, to this type of question: Where do phthalates stand when compared to other health risks?

One reason health risks are not frequently compared to each other on a spectrum from hypothetical to real is that health advocacy organizations tend to be single-issue groups. Such groups do not even attempt to see the broader picture of what health risks Americans face, which ones are important, and which ones not.

Given this gap in knowledge and perspective, the group I head, the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), has created a new Riskometer where you can interactively compare and contrast health risks. The site uses peer-reviewed, Centers for Disease Control-based data–which means the site is unique on the often rumor-based and superstition-driven Internet.

Now you can find reliable comparisons, for example, of how many people die annually from cigarette smoking versus how many die from exposure to PCBs, arsenic in water, or the dry cleaning chemical PERC.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the new ACSH Riskometer is a virtual gold mine of information on relative health risks for a risk-obsessed population.

Dr. Elizabeth Whelan ([email protected]) is president of the American Council on Science and Health, which created Riskometer.org. This essay first appeared on the Huffington Post, and is reprinted with permission.