Why My Personal View of Health Risks Is Just My View….
Some years ago, I took a vacation in Costa Rica, and while traveling back roads, I got to see lots of corporate banana plantations. What I noticed first and foremost about these vast agricultural preserves was that most of the banana bunches were covered with blue plastic bags.
When I inquired with a fruit seller I happened to meet, he explained that the bags were meant to feed the bananas fungicides to prevent diseases. They not only coat the bananas, but sicken the plantation workers, he said. This fruit seller was peddling organic bananas, which he said didn’t grow with the blue plastic bags and fungicide.
That banana experience made such a deep impression on me that I resolved never again to buy anything but organic bananas, and I never have. Indeed, it made me more committed than ever to feeding myself and my family organic fruits and veggies. To me, the prospect of ingesting or feeding to my family fungicides and pesticides, even in very small quantities via residues on fruits and vegetables, is something I consider too risky to tolerate. My instincts tell me those tiny bits of residue, day after day, week after week, accumulate over the months and years to cause cancer.
That is how I react to perceived risk.
I know other smart discriminating people who pooh-pooh my concerns about conventionally-raised fruits and vegetables. They regularly shop at the mass market grocery stores and buy the bananas I avoid, without a second thought.
However, some of these same people will read a newspaper account of children becoming terribly sick from pathogens picked up at a petting zoo or state fair (there is now such a situation with two very sick children in Oklahoma) and resolve never to take their children or grandchildren to a petting zoo or state fair. To them, it’s preferable to deny their children the pleasures of a petting zoo than risk even the slightest chance they will become seriously ill.
I will read the same newspaper account, and, while I’ll feel terribly for the victims, decide that such occurrences are so exceedingly rare that I’m not going to deny members of my family the pleasure of going to the petting area of a zoo. Rather, I’ll try to reduce the odds even further—in this kind of situation by insisting the children wash their hands before we leave the zoo.
Notice I haven’t said anything about raw milk. I recount these situations to illustrate how differently various people assess risk. But the same sort of decision making goes on around raw milk, and we'll likely be hearing much more about it if Cong. Thomas Massie's proposals for removing restrictions on interstate sale of raw milk go forward for hearings.
I have decided that raw milk is highly nutritious, and likely helps strengthen my immune system, perhaps reducing the odds for cancer. I have also concluded that the very occasional examples of serious illness from raw milk played up by the news media are so rare that the risk of illness doesn’t outweigh the overall nutritional benefit.
As upsetting as the stories I see on Facebook and in the news media about people sickened by pathogens are, I’d rather make my decisions based on the data and not on the basis of a few terrible stories
Why is that? I think that I intuitively feel the repeated exposure to small amounts of poison is highly risky over a long period of time. The odds of getting cancer are pretty high—less than one in ten for both breast cancer and prostate cancer. My intuition also tells me that the chances of getting sick from raw milk is a huge long shot—maybe one in 100,000 or more. And I know that even if I get sick, the odds are overwhelming that the illness will be mild; my chances of getting seriously ill so that I or a family member needs to be hospitalized are one in some millions. Nutritionist Chris Kressler did a great analysis two years back. He made the point that most illnesses from tainted food, including raw milk, are mild, with a few days of upset stomach. Then he added:
“The statistic we should be more concerned with is hospitalizations for serious illnesses such as kidney failure and hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) caused by unpasteurized milk. This does happen, and children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable and more likely to experience a serious illness. That said, hospitalizations from raw milk are extremely rare. During the 2000 − 2007 period, there were 12 hospitalizations for illnesses associated with raw fluid milk. That’s an average of 1.5 per year. With approximately 9.4 million people drinking raw milk, that means you have about a 1 in 6 million chance of being hospitalized from drinking raw milk.
“To put this in perspective, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, you have a roughly 1 in 8,000 chance of dying in a motor vehicle accident if you live in the U.S.. Therefore, you have a 750 times greater chance of dying in a car crash than becoming hospitalized from drinking raw milk.”
Or, as I noted, men have a one in six chance of being diagnosed with prostate cancer, and women a one in eight chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer.
Now, having said all that, I can appreciate that not everyone thinks the way I do. For some individuals, reading about or seeing a photo of a single child who needed to go on dialysis because of complications from a pathogen in raw milk is enough to scare them away forever.
What is completely deceptive is that the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advise people to view risk by reading individual stories, not by considering data. Thus, this advice from the FDA: "Yes, it’s true that it’s possible to get 'food poisoning' or foodborne illnesses from many foods, but raw milk is one of the riskiest of all…. to see how devastating these illnesses can be, check out these real-life stories about the dangers of raw milk." No data, of course, because that would be devastating to their case (except when they massage and manipulate the data, using data on outbreaks instead of illnesses, to conclude that raw milk is 150 times more dangerous than pasteurized, or to do ridiculous extrapolations like in Minnesota to conclude there were more than 20,000 raw milk illnesses over a decade; they'll never ever do the arithmetic based on real confirmed illnesses from raw milk compared to other real confirmed illnesses from other foods. Never.)
(By the way, Chris Kresser says in the same article I quoted from above something I have said on many occasions--that the risk of getting sick at all is higher with raw milk than it is with pasteurized milk, on the order of 9.4 times higher, not 150 times higher. He puts the odds at one in 94,000 for raw milk versus one in 888,000 for pasteurized milk--both pretty remote.)
However, for individuals who make their decisions based on tragic stories, it doesn’t matter what the data say. It could be one in 100,000 or one in ten million, and their decisions would be the same.
That is fine, and if that is the way people feel, they should make the decision that feels best for them. All I ask is that they don’t impose that decision on me.