Toxic Substance Policy and the Protection of Human Health
PAUL R. PORTNEY
IN A RECENT BOOK, William McNeill suggests that the demise of empires and civilizations past may have been due more to infectious disease than political or economic factors.1 Many of the diseases of which he writes no longer pose serious threats to the inhabitants of developed nations. For example, the spread of waterborne diseases like cholera and diphtheria has been arrested by filtration and treatment of drinking water sources. In a similar fashion typhus, pneumonia, influenza, and tuberculosis gradually have come under the control of modern medicine.
Nonetheless, we are slowly becoming aware of a new and extremely serious threat to human health arising from our exposure to certain highly toxic substances in the home, on the job, and at play. Although the effects of these exposures may never topple a modern civilization, they have the potential to cause great numbers of deaths and widespread, profound human suffering.
This chapter discusses U.S. policies designed to control toxic substances. In the first section, we call attention to the problems that toxic substances pose and to the characteristics of these problems that make them so difficult to manage. We consider next two extreme and idealized kinds of responses to toxic substance problems--one where the govern-____________________