Bike helmets, pesti-sides and carcinobugers

For those who make fun of people who grill organic food, today’s Globe is for you.

 The health section has a story on the misperception of risk and another on the link between grilling and cancer. Interesting  juxtaposition.

 The– You’re more likely to get killed in a car crash than a plane crash – argument is old news. See the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis and New Yorker writer Michael Specter’s 2009 book Denialism. These folks try to make good arguments for scientific literacy and decisions based on good evidence.  

But, we’re troubled by a few things. In many cases, they lump the truly paranoid with the cautious. Yes, grilling introduces potential carcinogens into your food. But if you are worried about pesticides, why not reduce the potential harm by not eating them. Is a half a carcinogen better than a whole one?  

Many conservatives who think environmentalists are crazy tree huggers use claims of so-called junk science  to dismiss legitimate scientific debate.

Finally, what about outcomes as a factor in all this. For example, I’ve never had a bike accident. But, I wear a helmet anyway since the outcome — a head injury — could be devastating. 

And, the price of caution varies.  Wearing a bike helmet gives me helmet hair. Not getting your kid vaccinated put mine at risk.

 You can argue all this in a never ending circle. Does the banning of DDT and GMO foods leads to malaria and malnutrition deaths in Africa? Is it better to risk having a child with birth defects than die of malaria?  Are we talking two evils or false choices?  Should we consider the source of our data?

In a New York Times Book Review ” piece on Specter’s book, UMass Med School pediatrician, Darshak Sanghavi – who also writes a column for Slate — had this to say:

 In his haste to sort people into two bins — either scientifically enlightened or in denial — Specter overlooks an important trend: for better or worse, people are more skeptical of authority than they used to be and want to think for themselves, which includes grappling with the minutiae of science. Not so long ago, for example, patients rarely questioned doctors before undergoing surgery or taking their pills (for example, estrogen replacement therapy to prevent heart attacks), a blind obedience to authority that arguably cost many more lives than, say, vaccine refusal does now. 

Also keep this in mind – two studies in this week’s JAMA found links between pesticide exposure and ADHD. Both involved Harvard researchers.

More on risk here from the Disease Management Care blog.



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