Oh, Deer! Real v Hypothetical Risks

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This past weekend -- a few days after ACSH's annual staff party at the beach -- I took a car service back to New York. It was relatively early Sunday morning, but the Garden State Parkway was packed -- although traffic was moving. We were not on the parkway more than thirty minutes when I saw an alarming site: three deer feeding on the grass, inching closer to the highway, apparently ready to sprint into moving traffic. Over the years, we have seen deer on the parkway before -- but never in a cluster, and never so close to moving cars.

I brought this to the attention of the driver, who noted that her husband the day before had crashed head-on into a deer on one of the local New Jersey roads. He had gotten his speed down to 25 miles an hour before the impact, but it still did massive damage to his car. He was very grateful he had his seatbelt on. It is clear to me that these deer present a clear and present threat to human life, since at any time they could dart into 60 mph traffic, causing multiple cars to swerve and ultimately crash.

In pondering this situation, I asked the driver, a local New Jersey resident, if the highway commission had any plans to avert impending disaster -- for example, by putting fencing to keep the deer off the highway -- or simply to limit the deer population through an expanded hunting season. Regarding the former recommendation, she said, "the state considered fencing the deer in -- but it would be too expensive."

Expensive? Relative to what? Here is the irony: we live in a society that has no price limit on the elimination of hypothetical risks -- but when it comes to real risk, costs come to the forefront.

Take, for example, the issue of naturally occurring arsenic in water. There is no question that high level exposure -- in excess of 100 to 200 ppm -- to arsenic in drinking water can and has elevated human cancer risk. There was no evidence, though, that exposure to 50 ppm, the national standard, posed any health risk at all. Yet the Bush administration signed onto a plan to dramatically reduce this "risk" -- a move that will be extremely expensive, without any known health benefit.

But keeping deer off highways is "too expensive." Go figure.

Elizabeth Whelan, Sc.D., M.P.H., is president of the American Council on Science and Health. Oddly enough, even PETA expressed concern that New Jersey's swollen deer population is a threat to cars -- after PETA's car got wrecked by a deer.


August 9, 2004

Dear Dr. Whelan,

I recently discovered ACSH and I appreciate it very much. I am a toxicologist and contaminated sites risk assessor in Alaska.

In Anchorage we don't have deer, but we do have moose. Lots of them. They are responsible for many traffic deaths. They are so tall, when they are hit they often come right into the front seat. They can weigh nearly 2,000 lbs. They are bigger than the Maine variety. But the last time we had a controlled hunt (using archery, for safety purposes), it was a media circus disaster. That was more than a decade ago. We have a very active activist community.

Some of our biggest perceived public concerns are bioaccumulating POPs (persistent organic pollutants) and mercury. Our state has a significant number of folks who rely on subsistence diets. They are told by non-profit groups' scientists (I'm trying to be civil) that they are being poisoned by the military and industry. In my humble opinion, this is the biggest NRDA case in history waiting to happen. The defendants? The military, electric utilities, and chemical companies. I attended a public hearing on glyphosate and people who claimed to have multiple chemical sensitivity were there, crying. I was the only person with views such as mine to speak for the record out of more than two hours of proceedings. I wasn't paid or asked by any entity to testify. I just did it because I hate to see pseudoscience go unchallenged. Incidentally, I was the only person who rode a bike to it.

On another occasion, I was at an Alaska Native Health meeting where a USFWS scientist was presenting salmon tissue data from the Yukon-Kuskokwim area. Her data for mercury were slightly elevated compared to selected conservative risk levels. A native elder from the audience asked her where this mercury was coming from. She said from lower 48 (i.e., USA) power companies...not China. I bit my tongue, because I wasn't sure of precise estimates, but I know China dwarfs our contribution.

I am really not a stakeholder. I have my own small business in environmental consulting. In fact, in my business, it can only help if everyone believes environmental toxicants are killing everyone. I am merely a concerned scientist. The things that go unchallenged in the media are frankly disturbing.


Rick A. Miles
Anchorage, AK

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