Cleanup Sanity


By Stephen Breyer

Harvard x 127pp x $22.95

In this slim book, U.S. Appeals Court Judge Stephen Breyer tackles one of the most complex of policy issues: how to regulate substances such as Agent Orange, asbestos, and Alar that create public-health risks. The book's strength is its striking simplicity.

Breyer takes the reader by the hand through what he calls a "vicious circle" of skewed public perception, congressional reaction, and scientific uncertainty to show why the U.S. has been unable to balance the cost of regulating substances with the benefit of protecting the public. To begin, people generally react emotionally, based on what they perceive as dangerous--not on what has been proven harmful. Congress, in turn, reacts to those who scream loudest, directing agencies to come up with programs to protect their constituents. The agency staffs then try to write such policies, but they quickly discover that science rarely provides black-and-white answers about the dangers of particular substances.

Instead of peppering his book with discussions of PCBs and parts per trillion, Breyer takes a common-sense approach to legal and scientific fights. Consider a case from his own courtroom. For 10 years, he presided over a battle to force the cleanup of a toxic waste dump in a New Hampshire wetland. Near the end, after 90% of the pollution had been cleaned up, one party insisted that dirt be burned at a cost of $9.3 million. The goal was to make the area even safer for children who might play there. Breyer pierces through legal arguments and environmental science to question the expenditure for a very practical reason: No children are likely to play in a swamp.

Breyer, a liberal who was on President Clinton's short list for the Supreme Court, sets out to find a way to avoid this sort of tunnel-vision expenditure. He is dubious about such options as educating the public about risk assessment or generating greater trust in experts and government institutions. Instead, Breyer proposes a high-powered federal office, insulated from public pressure, whose sole mission would be to make these tough health-policy decisions.

But it's hard to imagine an office so removed from politics, especially when screaming headlines about the latest environmental scare heighten voters' concerns about the safety of their children and their homes. Breyer's suggestion may be naive, but his book at least gives the public an understandable introduction to the complexity of regulating health risks.

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