odds of being killed by shark attack is 1 in 3.7 million.
Fears and facts
Most people worry about high-profile hazards but ignore
common - and often deadlier - dangers
By Rasmi Simhan -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PDT Tuesday, August 24, 2004
Will that bug bite give me West Nile virus? Does mad cow
disease lurk in that burger?
Most people know their chances of contracting either of
these - or of dying in a plane crash or a bioterrorist attack
- are remote. Yet those fears can seem more pressing than
the far more likely risks of food poisoning or skin cancer.
That's because the way people calculate risk has little
to do with the numbers - the number of people who actually
suffer, or even how severe the consequences are. What we
fear has less to do with fact than with feelings, risk experts
"We as human beings are a lot more irrational than
we think we are," said BJ Gallagher, a Los Angeles-based
social psychologist and author of "Who Are 'They' Anyway?"
"We let these low-probability but high-terror things
paralyze us when the stuff we ought to be afraid of is right
in front of us."
Death by shark attack is a common fear but very rare, killing
on average just one to three Americans a year. As such,
it falls into a category of risks that steal attention from
more typical and deadly culprits, such as skin cancer. About
half of Americans who live to age 65 will have skin cancer
from sun exposure at some point; one form, melanoma, kills
about 7,800 people a year, according to "Risk: A Practical
Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really
Dangerous in the World Around You."
"Catastrophic risks like a plane crash or terrorist
attack that happen all at once seem more scary than chronic
ones like food poisoning or heart disease - and that's dangerous,"
said David Ropeik, "Risk" co-author and director
of risk communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.
One out of four people will die from heart disease, yet
its slow development and some of the well-known means of
preventing it make it seem less dangerous than it is. The
average person tends not to worry because they think they
can control it by eating healthy food or exercising now
and then - or starting to do so "next week," Ropeik
Similarly, food-borne illness may seem less pressing because
people tend to think their meals are under their control.
Yet roughly one in four Americans suffers from food poisoning
each year and about 5,000 die from it, according to "Risk."
Most cases could have been prevented by properly handling,
washing and cooking food - things we tell ourselves we always
do but sometimes skimp on.
Feeling in control of a situation can give a false sense
of security about risk. Take cell phones: Most people worry
about the other driver who is talking while driving. But
you're three times as likely to be killed while you are
talking on a phone while driving, Ropeik said.
The same goes for the fear of flying in a commercial plane.
"If we're afraid of flying, we do something that feels
safer," Ropeik said. "We drive because we have
control - but that raises our risk." One in 3.1 million
Americans a year are killed in commercial airplanes on average,
compared with one in 6,700 in motor vehicles, according
A threat that's close by is also more troubling and more
likely to cause us to change our routine than a distant
risk. For example, the only places where beef sales dropped
significantly during a recent mad cow scare were the states
where the infected animals were found - Washington and Oregon,
Ropeik said. Most beef eaters apparently were unaware that
meat from the infected animals had reached stores in eight
Similarly, new threats scare people more than familiar ones.
Californians living near the San Andreas and other faults
are more likely to experience an earthquake than to contract
West Nile virus, Gallagher said, but earthquakes are not
an everyday worry for most people. This is partly because
earthquakes, unlike West Nile virus, aren't a new risk.
The hubbub about West Nile has dropped back East - where
cases first appeared in 1999 - but anxiety is fresh here
because California did not have any cases until last year.
While the lifetime risk of dying from West Nile has risen
from 1 in 520,000 in 1999 to 1 in 15,000 in 2003, the chances
are still low, Ropeik said. That's about as low as the chance
of drowning in the bathtub (1 in 11,000).
"Just because things are around a long time, we'll
say 'Well, it's part of life, something we accept,' "
said Julie Downs, director of the Center for Risk Perception
and Communication at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Fear of a new risk is partly a fear of the unknown and how
widespread a danger it could become, Downs added. The fear
of HIV and AIDS hit a fever pitch in the 1980s, with people
fearing to share a classroom with an infected person. The
hysteria has dropped over time as knowledge about the virus
How can you calculate risk based more on fact than feelings?
When it comes to developing your own knowledge about a given
risk - from antibacterial soaps to childhood vaccines -
be sure to find an objective source, said sociologist Barry
"We live in a society in which there are large numbers
of people and organizations that profit off of fear-mongering,"
said Glassner, a professor at the University of Southern
California and author of "The Culture of Fear."
"We hear constantly from people selling products, from
parts of the news media, from politicians and from advocacy
groups about dangers that are blown way out of proportion
because these organizations are trying to sell products
or memberships or build their audience numbers."
Find out how many people are exposed to the risk out of
the total population, Ropeik suggests. If the danger appeared
first in other regions or countries - as mad cow disease
did in Britain - see how people there were affected.
Another tip, from psychologist Gerald J.S. Wilde: Wait for
findings to be tested by other researchers before worrying
about the "carcinogen of the month." And keep
in mind that risk is a fact of life, he added. "It's
true your likelihood of falling out of the sky would be
reduced if you simply wouldn't fly," said Wilde, an
emeritus professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario,
and author of "Target Risk." "On the other
hand, you'd miss out on all opportunities and benefits that
come with traveling long distances. Risk is salt in the
soup of life. You want some of it - but not too much."
What we fear
Odds over a lifetime that a U.S. citizen will be killed
by these causes:
Shark attack: 1 in 3.7 million
Bear attack: 1 in 1.2 million
West Nile virus: 1 in 15,000
Fireworks: 1 in 230,000
Lightning: 1 in 39,000
Commercial airplane: 1 in 40,000
Anthrax: 1 in 730,000
Amusement park rides: 1 in 920,000
What we should fear
Cancer: 1 in 7
Heart disease: 1 in 4
Motor vehicle: 1 in 88
Suicide: 1 in 120
Stroke: 1 in 23
Kidney disease: 1 in 97
Diabetes: 1 in 53
Alzheimer's disease: 1 in 75
Source: "Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What's
Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around
You" by David Ropeik and George Gray (Mariner Books,
$16); fatality averages based on statistics from the most