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What Are Risks of Exposure to Chemicals?

Mar 15, 2005 | Oakland Tribune

The question comes down to risk: Would you chance death in a fire today or via cancer 30 years hence?

We all have toxic chemicals such as fire retardants in our veins. And while that touches several nerves, much of the raw emotion centers on risk.

Or rather, our perception of risk.

With these chemicals posing unknown but potentially terrifying effects a grisly death by cancer, sterility in your children or grandchildren our intuitive response tends to overwhelm more reasoned scientific explanations, said David Ropeik of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.

"What is it we're afraid of? They don't give us the runs, like food poisoning. They give us cancer," he said. "In most cases, the principal fear of these agents is they kill us in what we perceive to be a very nasty way."

Worse, we have no say over what enters our bodies. Whether or not you use Scotchgard offers little indication how much a key ingredient perfluorooctane sulfate contaminates your blood.

Such lack of control increases fear, Ropeik said.

Three factors - scant data, no control and potential threat to our kids - make our chemical "body burden" a true headline-grabber, Ropeik suspects.

Not that it's bad, he adds. It's just easy to miss a larger threat.

The worry over possible contamination of, say, perfluorooctanoic acid in cardboard fast food containers pales when considered against health consequences of eating the fried meat inside, scientists say.

Robert Brent, professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Medicine in Philadelphia and an expert on the effects of environmental factors such as radiation, drugs and chemicals on the developing embryo and child, finds such misplaced anxiety frustrating to no end.

Death comes to children in many forms, he said but rarely from a few picograms of a compound in a kidney.

Of the 19,234 deaths reported among young adults age 20 to 24 in 2002, 14 percent came from murder. More than 17,000 people in 2003 died in an alcohol-related vehicle crash; 40 percent of all traffic fatalities.

"And you're worried about TCE (tetrachloroethylene) in a well?" he asked. "Where is your perspective? A third of all children (who die) in the U.S. die in fires, and they die because the father or mother is downstairs drinking. And it isn't even a bad fire - it's smoke inhalation."

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