Sat, Jul 17, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Trying to avoid risks can leave you vulnerable to other hazards

By Vivienne Parry  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

There are many design faults in humans. The lack of an external fertility indicator. The Friday afternoon job that is a woman's urethra (one quarter the size of a man's and forever the cause of troublesome urinary tract infections). And the startling absence of a consequence-ometer, internal or external.

We're not talking clairvoyance here, of the sort that would allow you to predict that your perfect partner was a rat who would end up in the arms of a buxom blonde, years before it happened. Nor even the sort of judgment that prevents you poking a snoozing rattlesnake with a stick or kicking your football through the neighbor's window.

No, this is about the total blindness we experience when attempting to get shot of a risk we perceive to be worrying.

It occurs because we are so mesmerized by one particular risk that we cannot see beyond it. So, for instance, aware and terrified of stranger danger -- though children are less likely to be killed by strangers today than they were 30 years ago -- we refuse to let our kids walk to school and trigger life-endangering obesity.

We run away from farmed salmon after twittering about pesticide residue, forgetting the benefit for our hearts of eating oily fish and that the risks of not eating fish may be greater than eating it.

And what happened after a rail crash in the UK in 2000, which killed four people and injured 34? The cause was identified as a broken rail and an immediate slowdown ordered on 500 sections of suspect track.

Frustrated by delays, one-third of British rail passengers switched to the roads, where the accident rate per kilometer is 12 times that of rail. The resulting growth in road traffic, experts said, was likely to have resulted in five additional deaths -- nearly as many as the six fatalities broken rails have caused in the UK over the last 30 years.

Meanwhile, train drivers operating on a railway with no timetable were having to consult up to 16 pages of special directions on speed instructions, increasing the likelihood of passing a red signal -- which is 10 times more likely to result in death than a broken rail.

The 1995 pill scare was equally astonishing. Research suggested the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) was doubled in women taking the "third generation" contraceptive pill, compared with those taking earlier versions. Women simply stopped taking them. As a result many women became pregnant.

When you're expecting, your blood naturally becomes more sticky. Thus DVT is an entirely natural complication which affects 60 out of every 100,000 pregnant women. But still safer than being on the pill, surely? Actually not. The chances of DVT on those high-risk pills was less than half that of pregnancy at 25 cases per 100,000 women. There was also a 9 percent jump in terminations, which, as with any surgical procedure, carry risks associated with anesthetic use including, yes, DVT.

Even the most seemingly sensible of risk-avoidance measures can have unexpected consequences. For instance, attempting to mitigate the risks of global warming with a combination of double glazing and ruthless draft exclusion in your home is entirely admirable. But a well-sealed home is a breeding ground for bacteria, viruses and allergens which help push up rates of respiratory disease, particularly among children.

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