Source: The Mercury, 10 March, 2001, p.22
WE humans are not very good at assessing risks, in the contexl of benefits, snd then modifying our behaviours accordingly. Think of genetically modified ifioods. The term itself is enough to send shudders down people's spines. Why? Over several years of characteristically large levels of consumption of GM foods in the lJS, there have been no reports of adverse health effects Although not so apparent at present, the potential benefits for human health and 1;he envirorunent or some genetic mod)fications are huge. What about mobile phones? Lots of people are experiencing their benefits, yet still, even in the absence of any robust scientific evidence there is the shadow of fear that you could be frying your brain and giving Yourself cancer. Another of these overinflated health fears is the one about the risks of electromagnetic (EM) radiation. It seems to be a reasonably common belief that if you live near high-tension power cables, you are seriously risking your life or your ¢hildren's lives. What is the evidence for this? Un1il now there hasn't been all that much epidern io - logical evidence (linking dis- eases to what people do, where they live and BO on). A study commissioned by Britain's National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) and compiled by the independerit Advisory Group on NonioriziDg Radiation (AGNIR) has been released recently. - From large quantities of epidemiological information, the study concludes that the risk of childhood leukaemia (the disease that people mostly worry about) from exposure to EM radiation is extremely low-and thirs low risk iB only supported by some tenuous evidence. The figures suggest that, if EM radiation does indeed cause childhood leukaemia at the rates predicted) it would add only two cases to the 500 that occur for otber reasons each year in Britain. A few scientists disagree with the report but the report's co-ordinator is no novice with epidemiological stud- ies. He is Richard Doll, the person who first highlighted the link between smoking and lung cancer in the 1950s. Without being dismissive of these types of risks which, although sinall, do carry some pretty large consequences, think for a while about some of the really risky things that we do every day - smolrillg and driving spring to mind. Another recent study, this one published in the Bntish Medical Journal, suggests that being admitted to a hospital is a risky business. The stiidy shows that 11% of patients experience an adverse event, half of which are preventable, and a tbird of events lead to moderate or greater disability or death. These percentagfes are, ap-parently, similar in Australia and the US. If one considers the num- bers of patients each year, then these figures seem alarming. Of course, the benfits of going to hosptial are huge and I, for one, would have no qualms in taking this calculated risk. Perhaps it would be easier for people to weigh up risks and benefits if these were explained propoerly, rather than being presented as scare- mongering. Stanley Robert has a PhD in genetics and gained a post- doctoral fellowship at the Univeristy of Washington, Seattle.
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