Thursday, January 5, 2012

Mountains, Molehills, Etc.

It's great to see Sen. Collins advocating an evidence-driven approach to evaluating and mitigating health risks to Americans:

[Collins] has repeatedly questioned the use, in particular, of the backscatter X-ray machines, which emit low levels of ionizing radiation...

"As a frequent flyer, I just cannot believe that it is good for people who are traveling every week, or for TSA employees who are operating these machines, to be exposed to ionizing radiation," she told me recently. "I'm not asking for weaker security, but it's almost inevitable that some people are getting stronger doses. Just think about how many machines there are, how many screeners there are. Just think what would happen if the machines weren't properly calibrated."

The TSA has long claimed that the radiation absorbed by a passenger in a backscatter X-ray is equivalent to what he would receive in two minutes of high-altitude flying. In other words, inconsequential. Various TSA officials have also said the dose is roughly the same as the radiation absorbed from eating half a potassium-rich banana, though lately, perhaps fearing the wrath of the banana lobby, officials have dropped this particular comparison.

Collins, citing a recent ProPublica story discussing the small, but not entirely negligible, risk that the scans could cause some fliers to develop cancer, asked TSA Administrator John Pistole to conduct a comprehensive study of the potential hazards.
Still, how does Collins square her concern about the (potentially) small risk posed by the back-scatter machines with her total indifference to much more serious hazards?
In Sen. Collins's home state of Maine, her bill would continue the emission of at least 12,000 pounds of mercury and other toxics from Maine power plants and cement plants. At least 2.6 million pounds of airborne toxics are emitted into Maine's skies every year--or two pounds for every Maine resident.

Sen. Collins's most recent bill continues her yearlong assault on the health and safety of Mainers and other Americans. In February she targeted the Boiler Maximum Achievable Control Technology rule, which would require facilities with large industrial boilers to reduce their emissions of mercury, lead, and other pollutants that harm our health. These chemicals have proven, damaging effects on the heart, lungs, and brain. By clearing the air of these toxics, the boiler MACT rule would save 2,600 to 6,600 lives per year.
I suspect the different reactions can be explained by the relative power and influence of the companies involved in each issue--the same piece reports, for example, that energy and natural resources companies have contributed over $400,000 to the junior senator since she was elected.

But I wouldn't discount the importance of Collins' introductory clause above:

"As a frequent flyer, I just cannot believe that it is good for people who are traveling every week..."
It's easy for a pol to prioritize concerns about dangers she faces regularly. Looking out for the greater good when there's not much electoral incentive is something else entirely.