Wildavsky discusses the cranberry scare of 1959, dieldrin, saccharin, PCBs, DDT, dioxin, Agent Orange, the Times Beach relocation, asbestos, Alar, arsenic in drinking water, global warming, and other supposed toxins and environmental hazards. For example, arsenic is uniformly fatal to humans if a high enough quantity is ingested in a short period of time. The problem with that assumption is that there is no evidence to support it and plenty of evidence showing that small quantities of arsenic can be eliminated from the human body with no deleterious effects. Accidental epidemiological studies (studies done on humans that generally are not intentional because of moral prohibitions but sometimes arise out of happenstance) show that arsenic can cause soft tissue cancer if subjects are exposed to 600 micrograms/liter or more in their drinking water for several months or longer. Other studies show no harmful effects at levels of 300 micrograms/liter in drinking water. The EPA has set the current acceptable level of arsenic in drinking water at 10 micrograms/liter. Because of the arbitrary assumption that lower is better despite a dearth of evidence indicating any difference to human health between 0, 10, and 300 micrograms of arsenic per liter of water. Rats are injected with or forced to consume huge quantities of the tested substance for their entire lives, which is approximately two years, after which time scientists exam the rats to see if there are increased cancer rates. Therefore, because humans dont produce this chemical that reacts with saccharin to cause cancer in male rats, the same risk is not applicable to humans. Tests by the FDA and American Cyanamid, the producer of aminotriazole, on lab rats indicated that the substance could potentially cause cancer in extremely high doses. Wildavsky scales the tests up to human-size thusly: To put the rat dose in perspective, if a 150-pound man ate a pound of cranberries every day of his life, all contaminated at the maximum residue level of 1 ppm requested by American Cyanamid, he would ingest a dose (scaled by relative body weights) about 1,500 times lower than the 10 ppm dose in rats that caused a growth in one of the ten rats, which may or may not have been cancerous and may or may not have been caused by the 3-AT. The quantities of nitrites given to lab animals would be the equivalent of a human eating 586 pounds of cured meat daily. At high enough doses, virtually any substance becomes harmful or fatal, and all of the following have been shown to cause cancer in lab animals: vitamin A, salt, apples, bananas, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, mushrooms, and oranges. Wildavsky uses the analogy of a milk room to illustrate the risk of small doses. These are the levels of exposure people faced as some chemicals were regulated or banned. For instance, saccharin is vital to the health of many diabetics who would suffer adverse health effects without it; PCBs had wide application as a fire-resistant substance in transformers, pesticides, paint, and industrial machinery; DDT nearly eradicated malaria in the U.S., Europe, Chile, parts of the Soviet Union, and other areas of the world by 1959; Agent Orange was used in Vietnam in an attempt to save the lives of American soldiers who were ambushed by Viet Cong using the jungle as cover; asbestos was used widely because of its fire-resistant and insulating properties; nitrites help preserve meat and prevent food-related illnesses like botulism; and Alar kept apples on the vine longer which lowered the costs of collecting apples and getting them to consumers. DDT has not been shown to cause adverse human effects, even at high levels, but it may cause reproductive problems for some birds of prey. A flat ban on DDT has risked millions of human lives in the decades since Rachel Carsons Silent Spring, which, from what I can tell, was largely about robins dying because of DDT. The problem, as Wildavsky amply demonstrates, is that this overly cautious disposition leads to incorrect risk analysis and inefficient decision making that ultimately causes more harm than good.
This book reviews past environmental issues of the day. And on most issues reviewed the author did an excellent job with the science. The author does a good job of establishing the point that unnecessary regulation lowers the standard of living for everyone and that by lowering the standard of living these laws might actually be causing more health problems than they stop.