The odds of being killed by shark attack is 1 in 3.7 million.
Associated Press

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 say.

"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 said.

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 to "Risk."

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 states.

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 has grown.
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 Glassner.
"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 recent
year available.