From the Editors


  • Michael Greenberg,

  • Karen Lowrie

This issue begins with three provocative letters to the editor. Dioxins have been a scientific puzzle and public policy issue for 60 years. Joshua Cohen and G. M. Gray comment on the U.S. EPA's reassessment of the toxicity of dioxin, using a National Academy of Science panel as the launching point. Next, a letter from Jamie Donatuto, Barbara Harper, and Catherine O’Neill asserts that present Native American fish consumption rates are artificially low at this time and using the low consumption rates in risk assessment can unintentionally set an inappropriate fish consumption level and hence impact tribal rights to consume fish. The last of our three letters is from Ted Yellman regarding a recent article by Tony Cox about the definition of frequency and how it relates to risk analysis.(1) Yellman distinguishes between “event-truncated” and “time-truncated” distributions. In a response, Cox counters that this distinction is not relevant to the subject of his essay.

Six of the articles in this October issue are about risk perception. One of these studies highlights cross-cultural differences in perception. Elaine Gierlach, Brad Belsher, and Larry Beutler compared the personal “optimistic bias” in the case of large disasters among Japanese, Argentinean, and North American mental health workers. Across all three, respondents rated personal risk lower than risk to others (optimistic bias). Japanese participants had the highest risk perceptions for natural and terrorist-related hazards, and North Americans and Argentineans had the lowest risk perceptions for terrorism.

Climate change in its myriad forms is the preeminent global environmental public policy issue. Travis William Reynolds, Ann Bostrom, Daniel Read, and M. Granger Morgan compared data from 2009 and 1992 public surveys. The good news is that in general, respondents were more aware of some of the causes of climate change, and they were more likely to understand the contribution of energy production to global climate change. Yet, many still had incorrect risk beliefs and did not understand the role of carbon dioxide.

Tianjun Feng, L. Robin Keller, Liangyan Wang, and Yitong Wang remind us about consumer product recalls. They surveyed residents of California to examine both their risk beliefs and behavioral responses to recalls of lead-painted toys and contaminated pet food, observing that respondents greatly overestimated the actual risks for both.

Milan M. Ćirković, Anders Sandberg, and Nick Bostrom discuss human inability to consider the distant future, and they assert that this “anthropic bias” limits our capacity to formulate prudent policy for rare stochastic catastrophic events, such as asteroidal/cometary impacts, supervolcanic episodes, and explosions of supernovae/gamma-ray bursts. The authors call for risk-analysis-related research to try to better understand anthropic bias.

Arsenic is toxic and carcinogenic. Supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, N. Nguyen, Paul Jakus, Mary Riddel, and W. Douglass Shaw tried to understand how much uncertainty about risk and scientific information influence public risk beliefs. Using a sample from areas with high levels of arsenic in water, the authors observed that substantial uncertainty about the probability of mortality related to arsenic is prevalent and yet scientific information helped explain the public's perception of mortality rates.

In-depth interviews sometimes find clues about perceptions and behaviors that quantitative surveys do not. Supported by the Network of Preventive Activities and Health Promotion in Primary Care, Nuria Codern, Margarita Pla, Amaia Saenz de Ormijana, Francisco Javier Gonzalez, Enriqueta Pujol, Maria Soler, and Carmen Cabezas used five discussion groups in Barcelona (Spain) to help understand how smokers tie their habit to their life experience. The authors observed that smokers tend to accumulate and add new justification for continuing their habit, including their age and perceived benefit and enjoyment to them versus cost.

Five papers examine risk science and policy issues. Eric Murphy, Michael Payne, and Glenn W. VanDerWoude explore the difficult military problem of defending valuable assets in the United States using air and cruise missiles. They use a game theory framework to test simple and more complex strategic options, emphasizing the importance of making strategic choices.

Supported by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Tao Hong, Patrick Gurian, and Nicholas Ward present an approach for linking environmental sampling results with human health risk from exposure to B. anthracis. Their approach uses spores on walls, floors, ventilation system filters, and other locations to infer future or past aerosol exposures. The authors report many uncertainties, concluding that this approach is likely to work for large particles but is problematic for fine ones.

Using mobile phones, power lines, and other EMF technologies as illustrations, Leeka Kheifets, John Swanson, Shaiela Kandel, and Timothy Malloy examine the challenge of managing consequential risks with large public concern when there is limited scientific evidence. The authors observe both overstatement and understatement of the scientific evidence and of the consequences of taking protective measures. They also point to limited scientific ability to detect early warnings of risk, attempted reassurance that has sometimes been counterproductive, and limited public involvement mechanisms, among other management deficits.

Sammy Zahran, Jeffrey Snodgrass, Lori Peek, and Stephan Weiler examined the impact of Hurricane Andrew on fetal distress. Following the path of the hurricane and including nearly all of the State of Florida, the authors found that fetal distress risk significantly increased with maternal exposure. Hurricane-Andrew-exposed African Americans were the most likely to have distress symptoms.

Frank Guldenmund considers what “safety culture” was intended to imply by its developers and what is has come to mean in practice. The article focuses on safety culture through academic, analytical, and pragmatic lenses. The first two, he notes, have been driven by research and the third by expert opinion and practice. He argues that the three have diverged and need to be brought closer together to be more effective.

Finally, our Area Editor Warner North writes a highly engaging review of “Quantifying and Controlling Catastrophic Risks,” a new book by B. John Garrick. He highly recommends the book for both policymakers involved in issues related to catastrophic risks and for college professors teaching classes on risk analysis.