Ellen Bales

Post-Doctoral Fellow
Program on Science, Technology & Society
Harvard Kennedy School

An element of uncertainty: Radon and the quantification of risk in 20th-century America, 1945-2000

dissertation filed in May 2009

In the waning decades of the twentieth century, expert judgment in the form of quantitative risk assessment became the authoritative mode of understanding and expressing health and technological threats in the United States. Borne out of concerns with the safety of nuclear technology, quantitative risk assessment became, by the mid-1980s, one of the fundamental bases for public policy and federal regulation, applied broadly as a means for giving self-described "scientific" answers to difficult political questions raised by not only modern technology, but also the risks posed by "natural" sources. My dissertation examines the rise of quantitative risk assessment as a policy tool in the late-twentieth century by examining the case of radon gas, an occupational and residential carcinogen, and a hazard which the federal government attempted to manage both before and after the professionalization of risk assessment, with varying results.

An attempt at communicating radon risk to uranium miners by the Public Health Service, 1959.

In the decades before a formalized program of risk assessment emerged, the expert was called upon to make a convincing case for the legitimacy of long-term, probabilistic risks through other means. The first section of my dissertation focuses on the case of American uranium mining in the Southwest in the 1950s, when the Atomic Energy Commission created a "uranium boom" by artificially raising the price of uranium ore, creating overnight a large domestic uranium industry for the purposes of national defense. In this particular case, it became clear by the end of the decade that American uranium miners were receiving excessive exposure to radon within the uranium mines, but federal regulators were unwilling or unable to intercede directly in the practices of small mines on the Colorado plateau. In lieu of direct regulation, Public Health Service physicians and occupational hygienists attempted to persuade the miners and mine operators, primarily through targeted literature, that the radon exposure they were getting in the mines should be one of their foremost long-term health concerns. But the majority of the miners resisted the PHS's expert assessment, relying instead on their own extensive knowledge and experience with uranium mining and focusing primarily on the multiple, visible dangers in the mine, and on the expediency of short-term profit.

This "uranium rush" received considerable media attention, and the miners who participated in it were portrayed as rugged, adventuresome, entrepreneurial risk-takers and heroes of the American atomic West. By the 1980s, however, the miners' dismissive attitude toward radiation risk, though still prevalent, was presented in the media as tragically misguided. Furthermore, a large group of ill and dying miners was actively lobbying for federal government compensation, and those men were portrayed as passive victims. This transformation in the portrait of the American uranium miner is suggestive of broader shifts in the mainstream conception of risk, shifts toward giving greater credence to the counsel of expertise in arenas that had formerly been governed by private, local knowledge.

In exploring the causes of those shifts, my dissertation analyzes the ongoing tension between an expert epistemology based on distanced, statistical, and probabilistic calculations and a non-expert epistemology based on local knowledge, empirical evidence, and personal experience. The professionalization of quantitative risk assessment in the 1970s and 1980s was one significant signpost of that epistemological struggle. Indeed, by the mid-1980s, federal regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were expanding the use of risk assessment through all the organization's branches, a signal of the ascendance and growing power of the expert epistemology it represented. The second part of my dissertation is concerned with the creation of the new discipline of risk assessment, and the ways in which it was utilized as a new policy tool throughout the federal government—though not without consistent controversy. As a result of that controversy, and of the relative fragility of a new, loosely-organized profession constructed from multiple disciplinary threads, early risk assessors actively strove to legitimize risk assessment and reinforce distinct professional boundaries.

An attempt at communicating radon risk to domestic homeowners by the Environmental Protection Agency, 1986.

The third section of my dissertation returns specifically to the radon hazard, but by the mid-1980s it had moved to a new setting—the American home. After the discovery and publicity of elevated radon levels in a number of middle class American homes, the EPA was called upon to set radon guidelines as part of an advisory program and communicate the risks of indoor radon. Despite questions over whether a "natural" hazard like domestic radon fell under the auspices of the EPA, the agency was given a mandate to persuade a broad American public to test for radon and fix their homes at their own expense. While there was still a significant amount of public resistance to EPA's risk communication efforts, some homeowners were beginning to adopt the expert language of risk. These homeowners were, in fact, evolving into member of "the ideal public" that risk communicators hoped to construct—enlightened, logical, aware, and prepared to have a dialogue with experts. Their response, as well as that of those who continued to resist, can be more thoroughly understood in the context of the evolving role of expertise and conceptions of risk in late 20th-century America.

Table of Contents



Chapter 1: "About as safe as you make it": Risk, danger, and practice in American uranium mining, 1945-1970

1.1 Calamity Mesa: U.S. uranium mining, 1945-1960

1.2 "Think you know all there is to know about mining, Mister?": The U.S. Public Health Service Study and the uranium mining industry, 1950-1970

1.3 The Amazing World of tomorrow meets the rugged West: The new Western imaginary in media representations of uranium mining, 1950-1967

1.4 "No safety stops": Uranium mines and their risk context

1.5 "Then I don't give a damn": Rhetoric becomes practice

1.6 "Not just talk": Conclusion

Chapter 2: Casualties of the atomic age: Risk, pathology, and compensation in American uranium mining, 1970-1991

2.1 Left to wander among the red rocks: An introduction

2.2 Maximum benefit, minimum production: Radiation safety standards and the fortunes of the U.S. uranium mining industry, 1970-1990

2.3 Guinea pigs in the Valley of Death: How the Western imaginary became a landscape of decay in media representations of uranium mining, 1967-1993

2.4 Uranium's not bad for you: An alternative uranium miner experience, 1970-1985

2.5 The proof is in the pathology: U.S. uranium mining and compensation, 1970-2000

2.6 A silent and invisible killer: Nuclear fear and the formalization of risk assessment

Chapter 3: Death's bookies: The early professionalization of risk analysis, 1957-1985

3.1 Introduction

3.2 Radiation in perspective: The nuclear industry and early attempts to quantify risk, 1957-1975

3.3 Everybody's bag: Environmental awareness and anxiety about risk, 1962-1970

3.4 The war on cancer: Carcinogens and the development of risk assessment, 1971-1980

3.5 The archipelago of risk: Early efforts to organize and expand the field, 1975-1979

3.6 Cutting open the chicken: Risk assessment and the organization of a professional society, 1979-1983

3.7 A general analytic and decision tool: Risk assessment at EPA and the federal agencies, 1983-1985

3.8 Coda

Chapter 4: A natural contaminant: Risk assessment, risk management, and indoor radon at EPA, 1979-1986

4.1 Introduction

4.2 Radon onto the radar: Residential indoor radon, the media, and EPA, 1979-1985

4.3 Radon house: Indoor radon, the Watras case, and the nuclear family home

4.4 Your reward will be in heaven: EPA and the trouble with indoor radon, 1985

4.5 Working levels, working knowledge: The state of science and the science of the state

4.6 The biggest communication challenge the Agency ever faced: Indoor radon and the EPA, 1985-1986

4.7 Coda

Chapter 5: S.O.S. RADON: The Environmental Protection Agency, risk, and indoor radon, 1986-1992

5.1 Introduction

5.2 The number one cancer risk: The indoor radon program coalesces, 1986-1988

5.3 Producing an ideal public: EPA, risk assessment, risk management, and risk communication, 1986-1988

5.4 A busy year in the radon program: Indoor radon debates and the EPA indoor radon standard, 1988

5.5 Man here gets free gas: Indoor radon, the media, risk communication, and hazard fatigue, 1985-1988

5.6 What you don't know can hurt you: EPA, risk communication, and the public, 1988-1992

5.7 Conclusion