Relax—You'll Probably Survive Until Tomorrow

Americans have a poor sense of risk, and media panics don't help.


Ratz Attila / Dreamstime.com

"Area Man Will Be Lucky to Live Until Tomorrow" sounds like a headline in the satirical newspaper The Onion. But plenty of Area Men (and Area Women) could be forgiven for thinking just that. Americans often have a poor idea of the risks they face, and plenty of people seem to delight in keeping the public scared.

Earlier this month The New York Times published an opinion column on "The Formaldehyde in Your E-Cigs." It noted that "in public health circles, people now tend to call [electronic cigarettes] by what they do: deliver nicotine. … Thus, the term Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems, ENDS for short, has come into vogue."

But the author, an assistant professor of public health at Harvard, confesses that "I have a problem with that name. Nicotine isn't the only thing e-cigs deliver; they also deliver formaldehyde, a carcinogen. It seems equally fair to call them Electronic Formaldehyde Delivery Systems."

This sounds bad. Awful, in fact. But while the piece notes that manufacturers are not intentionally putting formaldehyde in electronic cigarettes—the chemical forms as a process of heating the liquid in them—it never says just how much formaldehyde an e-cig delivers. The closest it comes is: "sometimes, a lot of it." But how much is a lot?

Well, one of the studies the column cites found that formaldehyde in 10-puff aerosols generated from newer e-cigarettes ranged from 8.2 micrograms to 40.4 micrograms. Another study found up to 626 micrograms of formaldehyde per cubic meter of e-cig vapor.

Fair enough. But formaldehyde is not exactly rare elsewhere. It shows up in significant amounts in vaccines: up to 100 micrograms in the DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) vaccine given to children, for example. The FDA says formaldehyde has "a long history of safe use" in vaccines, and that formaldehyde "is also produced naturally in the human body as a part of normal functions." (It also says the cancer risk is highest "when formaldehyde is inhaled." Then again, "highest" is not the same as "high.")

Formaldehyde shows up in foods as well. The American Council on Science and Health cites European research showing that apples contain as much as 6.8 milligrams per kilogram (one milligram equals 1,000 micrograms). Potatoes contain as much as 19.5 milligrams per kilogram. Should we then refer to vaccines and potatoes as "Formaldehyde Delivery Devices"?

Before conservative opponents of regulating e-cigarettes start feeling superior, though, they should ask their friends on the right why they made Kate Steinle into a household name. Steinle was killed in San Francisco by an illegal immigrant who had been deported several times, and she was turned into a martyr by opponents of sanctuary cities, of which San Francisco is one.

Thing is, cases such as Steinle's are exceedingly rare. In fact, undocumented immigrants commit crime less than half as often as native-born Americans—and the homicide conviction rate for undocumented immigrants is 25 percent below that of native-born Americans. The homicide rate for legal immigrants is 87 percent lower. This suggests that one way (albeit a flippant one) to reduce violent crime in America might be to deport two American citizens for every immigrant, legal or illegal, who enters the country.

Or take terrorism—reaction to which has given us the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, waterboarding, the TSA, police militarization, and domestic surveillance that makes Facebook's data harvesting look like the magic X-ray glasses they advertise in comic books.

Yet how big is the terrorist threat to the average American? Vanishingly small: For the four-decade period from 1975 through 2015, the odds of an American dying in a terrorist attack carried out by a foreigner on U.S. soil have been 1 in 3.6 million. If that foreign terrorist is a refugee, the odds drop to 1 in 3.64 billion. And if that foreign terrorist is an illegal immigrant, the odds fall to 1 in 10.9 billion.

By contrast, the odds of being killed by a wild animal are about 1 in 30,000. In 2014, terrorists killed 17 Americans in the U.S. That same year, lightning killed 25 U.S. residents, dogs killed 36, and animals other than dogs killed 83.

On Friday, thousands of people here in Richmond, Virginia, will march against school gun violence—a commendable cause to be sure. But how many of them realize schools have been getting more safe, rather than less? From 1995 to 2015, the percentage of students who report being victimized at school has fallen by two-thirds. School shootings take 10 lives a year, on average. Roughly 100 students die each year riding their bicycles to or from school. Fifty million students attend public school in the U.S.

That doesn't make the murder of innocent schoolchildren by crazed gunmen any less heinous or horrible. But it does suggest that—as in so many other cases—the level of risk and the level of fear have little to do with each other.