Source: The Mercury, 10 March, 2001, p.22

Time to get a sense of proportion


WE humans are not very 
good at assessing risks, in the 
contexl of benefits, snd then 
modifying our behaviours 
   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 
   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 
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- 
   Stanley Robert has a PhD in 
genetics and gained a post- 
doctoral fellowship at the 
Univeristy of Washington, 

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