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The Quest for the Zero-Risk Option

“Sleep training might be harming your child’s brain – why would you take that risk?”

“Drugs have so many side effects!  I’d rather use natural remedies.”

“Parabens are hormone disruptors.  I always use preservative-free cosmetics.”

“I’ve researched the risks of vaccines, and I just can’t expose my child to all that danger.”

This is a theme I’ve noticed in the reasoning of “natural family living” devotees.  Usually these folks are just genuinely concerned about exposing themselves and their families to unnecessary risks.  But they’re missing something very important – there is no such thing as a risk-free option.  Every choice we make is a choice between two different sets of benefits and drawbacks.  I can hardly think of a life decision that will have no downside.  (Perhaps the decision not to smoke.)  Even most benign choices that are generally recommended for our health do have drawbacks.  Exercise is almost always a good decision, but it’s not risk-free.  Exercise brings the risk of injury, as well as frequently involving monetary and opportunity costs.  A healthy diet full of unprocessed fruits and vegetables is of course highly recommended by just about everyone, but again, this can be expensive and time-consuming compared to processed starch and fat obtained at the drive-through window.  Maybe that’s not a significant drawback to most people, but it is a drawback.

With this in mind, let me revisit those quotes, with a more balanced look at the relative risks:

Sleep training can involve babies crying for minutes or even hours.  We know that cortisol levels rise when babies cry, and that in other circumstances continuously elevated cortisol levels can cause serious health effects.  On the other hand, adequate sleep is vital for the health of both babies and parents, and continued sleep deprivation can cause serious health effects.

Medications often have potential side effects, some of which are bad enough to make taking the drugs unhelpful for a particular person.  On the other hand, any remedy that can have a positive effect can have a negative side effect, whether it’s a capsule or an herb, and of course most natural remedies are not proven to ameliorate any health condition, so relying on them involves a greater risk of leaving the original condition untreated.

There are indications that parabens do get into our systems through cosmetics, and it’s possible they have endocrine-like effects.  On the other hand, parabens are used to prevent bacterial growth in cosmetics, and it’s not clear that their actual presence in human tissues or their hypothetical contribution to breast cancer is more dangerous than the potential for smearing a happily thriving colony of staphylococcus on your face every morning.

Vaccines have risks.  Frequent side effects include soreness at the injection site and fever.  More serious health problems are rare, but possible.  On the other hand, vaccine-preventable diseases (VPDs) are even more risky.  Moreover, a child is at greater risk of injury when you drive them to Whole Foods to pick up some Oscillococcinum than they would be if you get them a flu shot.  (Seriously, more people die in car crashes each year than the total number of people who have even claimed to be injured by any vaccine over the course of 23 years of the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.)

When you unpack the assumption that there’s a zero-risk option, suddenly it’s clear that the “natural” option in each case isn’t as superior as it first appears.  Of course, it’s easier to make a buck or get publicity by scaring the pants off people about toxins, “Western medicine,” and vaccine injuries if you don’t include all that pesky factual nuance.  Not only do we consumers have to do some research and hard work to find out about the relative risks of our options, but we have to tolerate the notion that there is no perfectly safe choice, and we will have to expose ourselves to one risk or another.  That’s not a mental place many people want to be, so they turn off their skepticism and simply embrace the notion that “natural is safe and good!”

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