Americans face a daily barrage of potential cancer risks ranging from cigarettes to cellular phones, pesticides to pollution. But how great of a health hazard are they?
At a hearing yesterday of the House Science Committee's energy and environment subcommittee, witnesses urged the government to create a system for assessing and comparing such risks so money can be spent solving the most serious problems.
Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, Michigan Republican, who was a nuclear physicist before coming to Congress, said, "I don't believe there's any tool more important, and less understood by the public, than risk assessment."
Mr. Ehlers cited the Environmental Protection Agency, which estimates that new air quality standards could save 8,500 lives - but at costs ranging from $15 billion to $120 billion. He suggested the money might be better spent on medical research.
Republicans and Democrats alike have introduced six bills in the House and five in the Senate that involve changes in federal risk assessment strategies. Several involve hazardous-waste cleanups under the EPA's Superfund program.
One measure, the Regulatory Improvement Act, would require agencies to determine whether the benefits of a major health, safety or environmental ruling would justify the costs. It is sponsored by Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican, and Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat.
The science of risk assessment is, by definition, imprecise. But for decades, federal agencies have issued strict guidelines for such things as drinking water, radiation exposure, and pesticide residue on foods, based on "worst case assumptions," said George L. Carlo, chairman of George Washington University's Science and Public Policy Institute.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, policy-makers had little hard scientific data on which to base their decisions. "The regulatory system was based on the fear of the unknown," Mr. Carlo told the panel.
Yet while recent advances in technology have given policy-makers unprecedented access to quality data, the regulatory …