Negligible Risk: Premeditated Murder?

The Ferris Wheel

Holly Martins (is on a Ferris wheel, asking Harry Lime about the people he has killed by selling diluted penicillin on the black market): “Have you ever seen any of your victims?”

Harry Lime: “Victims? Don’t be melodramatic! Look down there! [pointing to people in an amusement park far below]. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”
— Ferris wheel scene, The Third Man

“From what you read and hear nowadays, it seems that murder under certain aspects is slowly but surely being made acceptable to a large section of the community.”
— Agatha Christie

By Paul Merrell and Carol Van Strum
from our archives; first published c. 1985. Carol a/k/a Ma Kettle is a kitchen tableau investigative reporter, book author, document junkie, friend to donkeys and advisor to Planet Waves and Planet Waves FM.

IS PESTICIDE AND DRUG RISK ASSESSMENT sponsored by government or polluters evidence of premeditated murder?

The issue is important because of a recent Bush Administration proposal to expand “negligible risk” decision-making in federal pesticide regulation (see Journal of Pesticide Reform 9(4):20). It’s also important because every discussion about the “safety” of vaccines involves an assessment of how many people any product will kill, which is the “risk” level. Risk is not about the statistical odds of being hurt by a product. Rather, it is the predicted incidence level of injury and death among consumers, caused by a product and its maker. This pertains to all chemicals and all drugs.

Risk Assessment

First, let’s dispel a crucial myth: Pesticide “risk assessments” can never predict what the risks are to an individual. The term risk assessment implies a statistical randomness that does not exist. Risks to individuals from pesticide exposure are in reality governed by such factors as individual dose and susceptibility, factors that are not foreseeable and never equal.

The notion that all persons in a pesticide-exposed population are at equal risk may be credible for public relations purposes, but it defies common sense. When a gunman fires into a crowd, everyone in the crowd is not at equal risk: the people nearest the bullet’s trajectory are far more susceptible to injury than the person standing behind a thick tree.

What risk assessment can provide is an exceedingly crude numerical estimate of cancer deaths or other toxic effects in a given population of persons placed at risk by pesticide exposure. A pesticide risk assessment may state disingenuously that the cancer risk to an individual is one-in-a-million; the actual calculation, however, is an estimated one cancer death for each million persons exposed. The statistical “risk” to an individual is misleadingly-and erroneously-assumed to be the same as the predicted incidence of toxic effects in the population. In reality, however, there are no “risks” — only casualties.

Risk Management

Risk assessment is an integral part of a related concept, that of risk management. For example, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials recently estimated in an internal document that existing universal “background” human exposure to chlorinated dibenzodioxins and dibenzofurans (taken together, dioxin) may result in 33,000 cancer deaths in the U.S. This is an example of a risk assessment.

On the other hand, when former EPA Assistant Administrator Rita M. Lavelle decided not to clean up the Stringfellow Acid Pit hazardous waste site because of the political affiliation of local California officials, that was a risk management decision.

In theory, pesticide risk management decisions weigh the harm projected by the risk assessments against the presumed benefits of a proposed action. While government risk managers commonly regard low incidence of cancer caused by a given pesticide to be an acceptable, negligible risk, the victims probably would not agree.

What If We Knew Who Would Die?

Imagine that it’s now the brave new world of the year 2020, A.D. Science has progressed. Now risk assessors can tell us not only how many persons will die, but also who will die. The new EPA administrator, Political Hack, Jr., is given two risk assessments for the proposed registration of Ecocide 2100, a kinder, gentler pesticide made by Effluvium, Inc.

One option is for restricted use of Ecocide and the other is for use without limitation. For each option, there is an attached list of the names, addresses, ethnic backgrounds, and party affiliations of those nominated to die in order to enrich Effluvium. Mr. Hack notices that his mother-in-law will die next week from acute poisoning if he approves Ecocide for unlimited use, and that most of Ecocide’s potential victims consistently vote for the wrong party. Without a moment’s hesitation, Mr. Hack decides to approve Ecocide’s unlimited use. He dances around his desk, singing the theme song of his office:

As some day it may happen
that a victim must be found,
I’ve got a little list,
I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders
who might well be under-ground,
And who never would be missed,
who never would be missed!

In the above scenario, surely no one would dispute that Mr. Hack is about to commit murder. (The person who performed the risk assessment may share that guilt as well). Moreover, Mr. Hack’s mother-in-law, and the others who have just been awarded free tickets to the afterlife, would undoubtedly –under present law — be entitled to a constitutional “due process” injunction preventing their deaths.

Risk Management As Murder

If forced squarely to decide whether government officials may pre-authorize the execution of citizens who are innocent of any wrongdoing, the courts would likely forbid it. As Prof. Laurence Tribe puts it:

Even if one does not believe that human sacrifice is never justifiable, courts have long recognized the wisdom of acting as though persons could never be used as means to the ends of others, knowing that any clear departure from that idea could spell the beginning of a disastrous slide.

Indeed, any moral demarcation at all between pesticide “negligible risk” executions and the Nazi gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau is extremely thin and must be vacillating uncontrollably. In both situations, a perceived greater public good-and lack of effective public opposition-justify the sacrifice of innocent human lives. Furthermore, the cumulative load of harmful chemicals to which humans are exposed suggests that there may be little difference in the number of victims.

The hypothetical scenario involving Mr. Hack demonstrates that our society probably would not tolerate the executions routinely predicted by pesticide risk assessments if the victims’ identities were foreseen. But why should it matter that contemporary negligible risk victims are known only in number and not by name? We do not excuse the killer who shoots into a large crowd of strangers because he doesn’t know his victims’ names and he kills only a few people or even just one. Why, then, do we tolerate those who spray the crowd with poisons rather than bullets? Is it not still murder? The corpses lie just as dead.

Within the narrow circumstances where the law will suffer one person to kill another without punishment, there is no “greater public good” justification or excuse. Typically, these circumstances are limited-and rightly so- to extraordinary situations such as self-defense, defense of another person, or preventing the escape of a fleeing felon. The prospect of expanded agricultural profits is no defense to murder.

It is frankly troubling to hear the President of the United States calling for the cold-blooded killing of citizens not convicted of any crime. How can these high regulatory officials who authorize “negligible risk” executions walk free amongst us unrecognized as murderers? It happens because the felons’ subterfuge — that they only impose “risks” upon the rest of us — blinds us to their actual conduct.

By disguising their victims as “risks,” risk managers exploit the fact that all of us take risks every day of our lives. We accept risks of driving on a highway, of many workplace accidents, or hazardous recreation such as skiing. What is different about pesticide risk management? Shouldn’t risk managers be allowed to impose further “negligible risks” upon us?

The Presence of Intent and the Absence of Consent

A better question is, why should we be so naive? These offenders do not impose “risks” upon a crowd; they deliberately execute individual human beings in the name of profit. Two striking legal qualities remove pesticide negligible risk decisions from the realm of permissible conduct: the intent of the actors and lack of consent from their victims. It is one thing when people voluntarily assume the risk of accidents; it is another thing entirely when another person intentionally inflicts physical injury without first obtaining the informed consent of the victim.

In the early 1980s, nationwide fear and outrage erupted when a very few people died after a small number of Tylenol bottles were spiked with cyanide. Would these deaths have been acceptable had the murderer obtained a pesticide registration and realized a profit? Given that it is murder for a wife to kill her husband by willfully lacing his chili with parathion, how can we excuse those who authorize the poisoning of the entire nation’s food supply?

Is it a sufficient justification for murder that only a few will die? If so, how can we justify punishing the Tylenol killer or the wife who murders only her husband?


We need to recognize pesticide risk assessment for what it usually is: evidence of premeditated murder. It documents the intent of regulators and polluters to sacrifice individual human lives on the altar of profit. “Negligible risk” is tolerated only because of the anonymity of its intended victims. Absent identifiable bodies, society may be unable to prosecute for murder those who make “negligible risk” decisions. We should nonetheless be able to prosecute them for their criminal conspiracies and attempts. Such prosecutions will succeed only when this “negligible” form of murder ceases to be acceptable to prosecutors and to the public.


5 thoughts on “Negligible Risk: Premeditated Murder?”

  1. This is it, fully and perfectly put.
    It never ceases to amaze me how humans are so willing to be complicit in their own demise.

    As aways Eric, thank you for all that you research and write about. It’s a beacon in dark times.

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