Tuesday, April 15, 2003


Turns out, compared to a lot of things we do worry about (and spend a LOT of money to control), worrying about SARS is probably not a waste of time. This article points out how clueless we would be in preventing a truly fast-spreading disease.

Where's My Face Mask?
William Baldwin, 04.28.03, 12:00 AM ET

It's a shame. We tie ourselves in knots worrying about things like nuclear power and wood preservatives, and then are ill-equipped to combat really deadly things like Asian viruses.

If you want to be like the germophobic journalist Bensinger in The Front Page, go ahead and wipe down the doorknobs with bleach. Your neurosis may be justified.

In all likelihood the Asian pneumonia will stop short of epidemic proportions in the U.S. (see p. 44). Even if the virus cannot be contained, it will probably have a death rate here well below the 4% seen abroad. But who can say for sure? If your life is worth $2 million and you figure wearing a face mask will reduce your likelihood of dying by 1 in a million, a $2 mask is a good investment.

At least, in making such a calculation, you would be applying more rationality than your fellow citizens do in matters of health and safety. Start with the budget of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The agency has $184 million for combating industrial diseases but only $424 million for combating natural epidemics. The ratio is not even 3-to-1 in favor of defending ourselves from contagious natural diseases. It should be 30-to-1. If we weren't so preoccupied worrying about nuclear power, we would be better equipped to fight influenza.

Research by University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic and others has shown how people's assessments of risk are warped by emotional factors. We are instinctively more fearful of things beyond our control (like airplanes) than things within our control (cars), even though statistics say that the car is the riskier vehicle. We also fear artificial things more than natural things: DDT more than malaria, the hormones in beef rather than the fat, the wacko with anthrax rather than the next-door neighbor sneezing coronavirus.

These visceral responses have infected our policymaking. W. Kip Viscusi, an economist at Harvard Law School, has documented the lopsided payoffs from different kinds of government regulations. Some car safety rules (like mandatory seat belt use) cost a tiny amount and save lots of lives. Contrast the 1989 asbestos ban: It is saving lives at a cost (translated into today's dollars) of $19 million per year of life saved. A tough regulation on landfills comes in at $3.3 billion per year of life. A rule treating wood preservatives as hazardous waste runs $1.2 trillion per year of life saved. At work here is a populist myth that business causes most cases of cancer.

The truth is that Mother Nature is a much bigger enemy.


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