The issue of lead wheel weights has become a touchstone for me in thinking about risk perception and how we respond to various sort of environmental contamination.
I did a story in 2001 about research by a clever scientist named Bob Root who had quantified the lead wheel weights falling off of our cars’ wheels. The amount was staggering – four tons per year in a city the size of Albuquerque, being ground up into toxic dust.
I wrote a front page story. No on called me. No one called Bob. There was no outrage, no calls for regulation. Nada.
It’s easy to imagine what the level of outrage would have been if the contamination was coming for a corporate polluter. Or, this being New Mexico, one of our nuclear weapons research centers. But perception of risk and outrage over its causes seems to be strongly linked to our beliefs about who is responsible. With no evil actor behind the lead wheel weights, no one seemed to care.
It’s nearly a decade later, and they let me write columns for the newspaper, so I revisited the topic today (sub/ad req):
Imagine what might happen if we discovered some company was clandestinely dumping 4 tons a year of toxic waste on the streets of Albuquerque.
Let’s call it DefenseCo Inc., and let’s say its workers were dribbling out their toxic waste a tiny bit at a time as they drove around the city’s streets, year after year after year, spreading it all over town hoping no one would notice.
Just to juice it up, imagine it was a type of toxic waste that was especially harmful to children, and that this was happening all over the country, not just in Albuquerque.
Imagine the outrage.
Perhaps not surprisingly, no one called this time either.
P.S. Sorry for the silence, I did in fact make it safely home from my European adventure, but I’ve exhausted for a week. My travel adventures really took it out of me. Back to water blogging soon.