In this last decade of the twentieth century, hazards have become a part of everyday life as they have never been before. It is not that life, at least in advanced industrial societies, is more dangerous. Indeed, by any measure, the average person is safer and is likely to live longer and with greater leisure and well-being than at earlier times. Nevertheless, the external world seems replete with toxic wastes, building collapses, industrial accidents, groundwater contamination, and airplane crashes and near collisions. The newspapers and television news daily depict specific hazard events, and a parade of newly discovered or newly assessed threats the “hazard-of-the-week” syndrome occupies the attention of a host of congressional committees, federal regulatory agencies, and state and local governments. Seemingly any potential threat, however esoteric or remote, has its day in the sun. How is it, then, that certain hazards pass unnoticed or unattended, growing in size until they have taken a serious toll? How is it that asbestos pervaded the American workplace and schools when its respiratory dangers had been known for decades? How is it that after years of worry about nuclear war, the threat of a “nuclear winter” did not become apparent until the 1980s? How is it that the Sahel famine of 1983 to 1984 passed unnoticed in the hazard-filled newspapers of the world press, until we could no longer ignore the specter of millions starving? How is it that America “rediscovered” poverty only with Michael Harrington’s vivid account of the “other Americans” and acknowledged the accumulating hazards of chemical pesticides only with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring1? How is it that during this century a society with a Delaney amendment and a $10 billion Superfund program has allowed smoking to become the killer of millions of Americans? And why is it that the potential long-term ecological catastrophes associated with burning coal command so much less concern than do the hazards of nuclear power? These oversights or neglects, it might be argued, are simply the random hazards or events that elude our alerting and monitoring systems. After all, each society has its “worry beads,” particular hazards that we choose to rub and polish assiduously (Kates 1985).
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