In my time working on construction crews in Oregon, one persistent joke was, upon reading the ubiquitous warning “known to cause cancer in the state of California” on a material we were about to use, was announcing, “good thing we’re not in California!” Everyone would laugh and then go ahead using the pressure-treated lumber, or whatever it was, as usual. I was generally alone in taking precautions in these situations, and actually caught significant flack for being paranoid and/or anal retentive. This was not improved by my careful explanation that California was where the lawsuits and legal actions happened which resulted in these warnings, not where the cancer cases were confined!

The bottom line was that precautions (not to mention using less toxic materials) slow down the process for bosses and often seem unnecessary to the crew, so they were not taken. Many of the crew reasoned that since they already smoked and drank, how much could inhaling some fume or touching some chemical really increase their chances of getting cancer?

This was frustrating to hear but is actually an excellent point. Without information about base rates, how can we make good decisions about toxicity exposure? We need specificity and statistics to make good decisions.

For example, Reanna pointed this sign out to me last night:

It is posted on the side of the RV we have been living in during our renovation project. Of what use is this supposed to be? If I was on the fence about whether or not to buy an RV this might be somewhat helpful, but only by increasing a vague sense of fear, possibly to the point that I wouldn’t make the purchase. I want to know by doing what (driving it? sitting in it? licking the walls?) for how long (minutes? years?) and in what circumstances (engine running? after the RV’s a certain age? at certain temperatures?) will increase my chance of developing what cancer by what statistical rate? With that information, I could make a decent decision about how to interact with this RV. Or construction material.

It’s unfortunately true that construction worker and RV buyers (as well as doctors, lawyers, and Americans in general) do not understand statistics, and so for many this information might not be helpful. But it could hardly be less helpful than it is now.

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