Scary Rhetoric

One of the things about health and science issues is how children are used to scare the readers. Example, Dwight Meredith’s entry on the EPA’s consideration of using voluntary standards with regards to lead based paint vs. mandantory standards. Now, before I get into the “scary rhetoric” let me point out a few of things first.

  1. Based on the information Dwight has provided voluntary standards look like a bad idea.
  2. Based on the information Dwight has provided mandantory standards look like a good idea.
  3. Yes, children are more at risk to lead based paints.
  4. My problem is with the misleading rhetoric.

The problems start here,

In other words, we can save money by having mandatory standards and we can save children by having mandatory standards, but the administration is balking at doing so because mandatory standards cost contractors some money.

Save children? I’m sorry I thought the problem was lowered IQs not death. Where does death suddenly come into the picture? Hmmm I see no mention of death rates for children in the L.A. Times article that Dwight links too.

The problems continue here,

Is it really too difficult to find a way to take some of the $2.7 billion to $4.2 billion in savings and use it to ameliorate the burden on the smallest contractors?

First these reduced costs are, in my opinion, unlikely to be realized. The problem is that those who currently deal with children with lead poisoning will see these savings as a loss for them (i.e. lost jobs, fewer facilities, etc.). As such they will cast around for some other thing to justify their continued existence (in terms of jobs, facilities, etc.). Second, these reduced costs wont accrue to the contractors who are shouldering the burdens. I am also willing to bet that the only way to take these monetary savings and transfer it to the contractors is via a tax. Taxes themselves are inefficient and might make the mandantory standards more costly.

I also disagree with this part as well,

Some of the costs of brain damaged children are not easily susceptible to cost/benefit calculations. The three of us here at Wampum know all too well how difficult it is to quantify those costs. Eric and MB, and their entire family, pay the full price of having a lead-poisoned child each and every day. No scale exists on which it is possible to place the neurological health of our kids on one side, money on the other side, and reach a balance.

The non-economic benefits of preventing brain damage in 10% of our kids are beyond calculation. The Environmental Protection Agency should be looking for ways to prevent children from being poisoned, not looking for ways to allow contractors and landlords to leave the poison around to harm another generation of kids.

We put our children at risk all the time. We put our children in cars and drive at 50, 60, even 70 or more miles per hour. We let them get in swimming pools and then, duck inside for just a second to get something, etc. The thing is we know that that risks are fairly low with cars and pools. We also know that the risks of brain damage and lowered IQs are pretty high even with small amounts of lead. So we can get some sort of handle on these costs and benefits. Or think of it this way, suppose we could snap our fingers and have every person be completely aware of the risks of lead based paint and lead poisoning. How many people would spend money to ensure their house, apartment, etc. is “lead free”? Would some parents cut corners or maybe not spend any money at all? If the answer is yes, then the benefits are not beyond calculation. And this last part is why we should probably have mandantory standards. Relying on parents to know about this and to take the necessary steps to prevent it, as well as relying on contractors to always do the right thing probably isn’t going to work as well as a mandantory regulation.

Is there a good case for mandantory standards? I would say yes. However, there is no need to resort to these kinds of rhetorical tactics. The problem is that for some there is a great deal of emotion involved in issues like this and it is difficult if not impossible to keep the emotion from becoming the dominant factor when looking at these issues. It is a problem I’ve seen before.

FILED UNDER: Health, Science & Technology
Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.