Our greatest risk is our own panic

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Somewhere in heaven, “Farm and Dairy” Editor Emeritus Elden R. Groves is furiously pounding the keys of an old Remington manual typewriter.

One of the things that infuriated Groves, whose career at “Farm and Dairy” spanned more than 50 years, was the billions and billions of dollars spent on asbestos removal since the 1970s when the risk to public health was minuscule. Other examples of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s misguided bureaucratic war on supposed risks were also targets of Groves’ well-aimed commentaries.

Poor returns. Groves intuitively understood what the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis finally penciled out: EPA regulations cost $7.6 million for each year of life saved.

That’s a lot of tax dollars and in the case of asbestos, improper removal creates more of an asbestos risk than existed before removal.

Elden was right and now the EPA even grudgingly admits it – you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than you are to die from asbestos exposure.

The EPA’s backpedaling came after Sept. 11, when questions of asbestos risks surfaced in the rubble of the World Trade Center. The EPA started scrambling to reassure the public that it was not at any real risk and asbestos was harmful only if breathed at high levels and over long periods of time.

Everyone knows “zero risk” is a utopian dream and now perhaps, so does the EPA.

Prone to panic. We are a nation that jumps to conclusions and is prone to panic, as witnessed by asbestos in crayon claims, the Alar scare and now suspicion of anthrax on every letter.

While we should be vigilant, we should not be without common sense – not everyone needs to rush out and buy gas masks and take antibiotics without evidence of a threat. (Indeed, most medical professionals will tell you that the widespread taking of antibiotics as a preventative measure will cause more harm than good.)

Sound advice comes from Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health, who urges Americans “to remain calm and not assume that danger lurks from terrorists using ‘germ warfare.’ Such panic is not in anyone’s interests, and will actually interfere with public health efforts to prepare for all eventualities.”

And Jared Diamond, a UCLA professor of physiology, writes in the “New York Times,” “Our biggest risk is our own panic.”

Risk is minimal. There was an excellent opinion piece in the Oct. 22 “Wall Street Journal” by oncologist Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, who urges Americans to carefully weigh risks before making rash decisions. To the families of Americans who have died from anthrax exposure, there is no greater tragedy, but, Emanuel writes, “280 people would have to die of anthrax to equal the risk of driving 50 miles in a car… How many Americans refuse to drive because of the risk of dying in a car accident?”

Larry Madden, an Ohio State University plant-disease specialist who sits on a national Committee on Biological Threats to Agricultural Plants and Animals, addresses “crop bioterrorism” in our page 1 story this week. But he is also calling for calm in the midst of chaos.

“I think it would be a mistake if, all of a sudden, our first answer to a question is terrorism – in agriculture or anything else in the country,” he said.

We know better.

(Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 1-800-837-3419 or at editorial@farmanddairy.com.)

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