- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2005

We live in a risky world

The Jan. 12 Commentary column “Ratty test rationale” by Dr. Elizabeth Whelan states a real problem, identifies an incorrect cause and thereby comes up with the wrong solution.

True, people are being scared to death by inappropriate analysis of the risks of cancer. But to blame the rodents is incorrect. My colleagues and I have studied interspecies comparison of carcinogenic potency for 25 years. We found, in agreement with others, that the correlation between cancer at a specific site in one species and cancer at the same site in another species is only passable. But the quantitative correlation in magnitude of carcinogenic potency between rats and mice is quite good when the site is ignored. If a mouse or rat develops cancer at one site, does it matter for public protection that we do not know the exact site where I might develop cancer? The correlation of carcinogenic potency between rodents and people is limited by accuracy of data. Rodents don’t tell us as much as we would like, but that is no reason to ignore any of the limited data we have.

The problem that people are being scared to death would still exist if the correlation in carcinogenic potency between rats and mice were exact. This shows that the rodents are not the real cause. The real cause is that the agencies, inspired by Congress, insist on attempting to regulate minuscule risks — often one in a million in a lifetime pessimistically calculated. I have argued for 25 years that the agencies cannot regulate such small risks consistently and that an attempt to do so is arbitrary, capricious and perhaps illegal on that ground. The Environmental Protection Agency and other regulators are unrepentant. But Food and Drug Administration regulators have frequently reminded us that natural carcinogens in foodstuffs pose larger risks, using any reasonable calculational method, than most chemicals that are regulated.

Nor should we accept that there is zero risk at a low dose of a substance. It is implicit in the multistage cancer theory of Sir Richard Doll that exposure to a substance at low doses produces a proportionately low (usually minuscule) risk. It is explicit in the 1975 work of Sir Richard Peto, who pointed out that when a substance produces a medical ailment indistinguishable from one that occurs naturally, it is likely that the pollutant acts at some stage in the process similarly to natural processes. The fact that cancers occur implies that a biological threshold, if any, is exceeded by the natural processes. Then, as a mathematical consequence of Taylor’s theorem, an incremental increase in cancer is proportional to the dose of pollutant. This argument applies to a wide variety of environmental problems: air pollution, radiation exposures and chemicals in food. It has never been refuted.

On average, between 1 percent and 2 percent of the lifetime risk of death is from car accidents. We do not ban cars, nor should we ban a chemical that poses a risk 10,000 times smaller than that of cars. That the risk is minuscule does not mean that we should ignore chemicals known to cause cancer in rodents, as half of them do. It should mean that we, and public agencies acting on our behalf, admit that we live in a risky world and must accept risks of small magnitude while rejecting those of large magnitude. We must reject absolutes and rigidity — both the rigidity of the impossible demand for zero, or even one in a million, lifetime risk and Dr. Whelan’s refusal to allow rodents to tell us everything of which they are capable. We must also be alert to the possibility that rodents may not warn the world of real hazards, such as the carcinogenicity of arsenic.


Mallinckrodt Research Professor of Physics

Department of Physics

Harvard University

Cambridge, Mass.

Head to come

Thursday’s Page 1 car-sharing article, “Car-sharing firms seek residential parking spots,” missed the point. The city’s proposal to provide designated public parking spaces for car sharing is a strategy to alleviate traffic congestion and parking difficulties in Ward 1 and 2 neighborhoods.

We are never going to have enough easily accessible free parking spaces in these highly populated communities. The solution is to encourage fewer cars.

Currently, the city encourages people to own their own cars. Residents pay just $15 a year for a resident parking sticker, which does not begin to cover the cost of street repair, snow and trash removal, maintenance and lost fees from parking meters, etc.

Car-sharing residents receive no public subsidy. Through Zipcar or Flexcar, car sharers pay to rent private spots for about $200 a month. There are not enough private parking spots to meet the demand of car sharers. The city’s recommendation to set aside some parking spaces (just about 30, not 140 as reported), would provide car-sharing residents with greater access and affordability and encourage other residents to choose an environment- and community-friendly solution.

Like many Zipcar users, I got rid of my car when I joined five years ago. Zipcar estimates that each of its cars removes six to 12 privately owned vehicles from neighborhoods. Zipcar also estimates that about 19 persons can be served by one shared car. The hundreds of car-sharing customers in these neighborhoods deserve subsidized parking spaces like those many of our car-owning neighbors have come to expect. Clearly, a private firm providing affordable car rental to 500 residents and thus removing more than 240 cars from the area is providing a public service greater than providing 30 parking spaces to individual residents who own their own cars.

The city should encourage this public-private partnership, which increases services to residents and decreases congestion.



Kennedy ‘irresponsible’

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, says we should cut and run from Iraq (“Kennedy says U.S. presence in Iraq is fueling insurgency,” Page 1, Friday).

One must wonder about the timing of Mr. Kennedy’s remarks just days before Iraq’s historic free elections. Wouldn’t it have been better to wait until after the Iraqi elections to send such a defeatist message to Americans and the world? Is Mr. Kennedy afraid the elections will be a huge success and negate his antiwar, anti-Bush message?

Mr. Kennedy has every right to oppose the war in Iraq and criticize the Bush administration; after all, freedom, including freedom of speech, is what Americans are fighting and dying to give to 25 million Iraqis.

But why give this speech now, when Iraqis are summoning the courage it surely will take to go to the polls and cast their votes Sunday? Does he want the Iraqi elections to fail so he can say, “See, I told you so”?

The senator’s comments are irresponsible, reckless and timed to do as much harm as possible to President Bush and our efforts in Iraq. What really makes this so despicable is that his seditious comments may cost more American lives, as terrorist recruiters could use them to show that America lacks the will to stay the course.

Don’t be surprised if video segments of his speech end up in terrorist-recruiting propaganda. Mr. Kennedy, through this inane speech, has become a poster boy for Abu Musab Zarqawi and his fellow murderers.


North Olmsted, Ohio

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