The news is full of scary stories about threats to our health; from industrial chemicals, or the newest unfamiliar disease, or from the seemingly mundane things in life that the latest study suggests might be dangerous…bread, coffee, over-the-counter pain medication. The ominous drumbeat of potential bogeymen is ceaseless, and small wonder, since we are likely to pay attention to any warning of danger, and attention is the news media’s lifeblood.
The problem with these stories is not their omnipresence, nor that they overemphasize the scary parts. Yes, being warned so constantly and dramatically does make us feel that the world is scarier than it actually is, but warnings also help us stay safe. The larger problem with a lot of news coverage about risk is that it doesn’t tell us what the risk really is. It leaves out huge chunks of basic information, without which we can’t tell whether the danger is big or small, whether it threatens us or only somebody else, or even whether the risk du jour is actually a risk at all. More than just overdoing the scary parts of the news, reporting on risk stumbles because it just fails to include basic facts.
For a risk to exist at all, you have to have both a Hazard and Exposure. Is the supposedly risky sounding thing actually harmful (the chemical dihydrogen oxide sounds scary, but it’s only water), and are you exposed to it? Without both, there is no actual risk. There are countless news stories about some possible peril that simply don’t include information on one or the other of these required elements.
The details of hazard and exposure also matter.
- What does the hazard do? What actual harm might the potentially scary sounding thing do? Information about this vital aspect of risk is usually quite vague in most news stories. Very few stories that raise alarms about a ‘potential carcinogen’, for example, detail what kind of cancer. There are more than 150, with a wide range of potential consequences. Very few stories on the risk of mercury say much more than it is a neurotoxin. Sounds scary, but what does that mean? Death, or slowing down on the crossword puzzle or Sudoku?
- Hazardous to whom? Most risks are riskier for some people than others. At the doses to which we’re exposed (largely from seafood), mercury is a risk to the cognitive health of the developing fetus, but not to adults. New strains of influenza usually affect people differentially by age and health status. Radon is a risk for lung cancer, but 85% of those cases occur in smokers. News stories often fail to identify subpopulations particularly at risk, and all the other groups that aren’t.
- At what dose? Everybody knows that a couple aspirin are fine for a headache but a bottleful will kill you. The same is true for any risk. Dose matters. Radiation is a media favorite for fear, and any radiation exposure gets covered with great alarm. But like most potential carcinogens, low doses of radiation are a tiny risk (if any at all…there is a controversy about that). For other risks, tiny doses – and apparently only tiny doses - are a greater potential risk, like Bisphenol a (Bpa) and other ‘endocrine disruptors’, suspected of interfering with the hormone systems controlling fetal development. The dose is centrally important to how much of a risk the scary hazard might be, and most news stories about risk simply fail to include any dose information.
There are critical details about exposure that go unreported as well.
- How am I exposed? Is the potential hazard in your food, the air you breath, or do you get it on your skin? Anthrax on your skin may give you a rash. In your lungs, it can kill you. Radon in your drinking water is not carcinogenic. It’s only in the lungs that it poses that hazard. Bpa is mostly thought to be a hazard when ingested…a fact that is missing from all those alarmist stories about how Bpa can be found on shiny cash register receipts, which we may touch, but rarely eat.
- At what age? Bodies ands brains change with age. No amount of lead exposure is without risk, but since it damages the brain, the same exposure is worse in kids, whose brains are still developing, than in adults. And some hazards take a long time to do their dirty work. So exposure at an early age to, say, asbestos, poses more of a risk of mesothelioma than the same exposure at age 50.
- How often? With most hazards, a single exposure usually isn’t much of a risk, unless of course the dose is high enough to be dangerous on the spot, what is known as ‘acute’ risk, like the high radiation exposure that killed workers putting out the fire in the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl. Repeated ‘chronic’ exposure to lower doses increases the risk…but constant daily exposure is different than occasional exposure every few days or weeks. So it’s important to know how the frequency of exposure determines the likelihood and severity of a risk too. But you won’t find that in most risk reporting either.
Reading the news can feel like you’re in that fable about Chicken Little, in which Henny Penny and Turkey Lurkey and several other creatures follow Chicken Little around yelling “The Sky Is Falling, the Sky is Falling” – after an acorn fell on Chicken Little’s head. To a news media hungry for hit counts and eyeballs and attention, every little acorn gets turned into an alarm. Some of are well-warranted, and some aren’t. But we can’t tell which is which if basic facts about the risk are missing.
So before you freak out at the next risk headline, dig into the story for those basic facts. (And find the good journalists who provide them, and support that quality news coverage with your attention and subscription money.) Or if the basic facts are missing, just look things up yourself before you jump to fearful uninformed conclusions. You’ll be more informed, and healthier, for the effort.