Our collective and individual reaction to health or safety threats is often disproportionate to the established risk. At the community level, it has been documented that actual or perceived health threats can be deemed newsworthy based solely on non-scientific, journalistic criteria. This is reflected in our general acceptance of oftentimes dubious information without question.
There are a number of reasons given for our holding on to unsupported positions. These include our preference for things familiar, the general inaccessibility of statistical methods and meanings, and our lack of relevant contextual information. These biases affect both lay and professional perceptions of risk.
As safety and health professionals, we have a duty to recognize and then move beyond our own biases, in order to fulfill our roles as hazard translators, educators and communicators. This enables us to assist our stakeholders in understanding that which is known, that which is uncertain and the options that would best serve workplace and community health and safety. Ultimately, it will contribute to a wiser prioritization in managing hazards on any scale.
One of the most prevalent and familiar biases is our inability to use objectivity in evaluating the hazards or the numbers behind them. We lean toward the familiar; anecdotal evidence holds power. Unfamiliar elements inspire fear reactions, while more well-known and/or more accepted risks often don't.
Contrast the perceived risks of exposure from living near nuclear fuel plants with those associated with living in homes contaminated with lead paint or radon. Few would argue that the former is overshadowed by the well-characterized risks of the latter. However, nuclear power plants have been the subject of a much larger public debate and controversy, in spite of the absence of compelling data to the contrary.
The recent SARS outbreaks offer another example of unfamiliar risk and an imbalance between perceived and established exposure potential. In spite of the fact that SARS was newly identified by researchers in 2002, due to swift action the associated fatalities were no doubt limited. Though there were no known cases in the U.S.1, many tourists in New York City avoided Chinatown during that time, based on the presumption that Asian Americans frequently travel back and forth to Asia and, therefore, posed a SARS threat. Compounding the problem was that the "public face" of the epidemic - i.e., the images featured in round-the-clock news reports - was that of Asians wearing protective masks. Asian-Americans were branded as outsiders and regarded by parts of the public as the origin of the disease.2