COMPARATIVE RISK

Bernard Cohen, now a retired professor of physics from Carnegie Mellon University, created two tables to illustrate the relative risk of various activities. For the first list, he used the best known risk estimates, along with the linear hypothesis, to estimate how much of various activities it would take to increase your risk of premature death by 1 part in a million. Here is his list. Everything on this first list has the same risk. So if you are worried about dying from an airplane crash (for a 1000 miles trip), then you can reduce your risk of premature death by travelling 10 miles less by bicycle. Put another way: if you don't worry about going 10 miles on a bicycle, then you shoudn't worry about anything else on the list either. The list also shows that if you are worried about radiation, it is much safer to live near a nuclear power plant than to live far from such a plant but be in Denver Colorado. (Denver has high radiation because of the presence of large amounts of granite and other similar rock, which has high uranium content.)

Activities that increase chance of premature death
by 1 in a million

smoke 1.4 cigarettes (not per day -- total!)
spend 2 days NYC (from air pollution, 1976)
spend 3 hours in a coal mine (accident)
travel 10 miles by bicycle (accident)
travel 300 miles car (accident)
travel 1000 miles by jet airplane (accident)
travel 6000 miles by jet airplane (cancer from cosmic rays)
Live 2 months in Denver (cancer from high average radiation)
live 2 months in stone or brick building (cancer from high average radiation)
take 1 chest x-ray (not counting the benefit of catching a disease)
eat 40 tablespoons Peanut Butter (cancer from aflatoxin)
live 2 months with a smoker
eat 100 charcoal-broiled steaks
drink 1 yr Miami water (chloroform H2O)
30 cans sacharine soda
live 5 years at boundary of US nuclear power plant (cancer from radiation)
live 20 years near PVC plant (cancer from vinyl chloride)
live 150 years at 20 miles from a nuclear power plant
live 5 miles from nuclear plant for 50 years (nuclear accident)

Cohen made a second list, in which he calculated the number of days lost per lifetime (on average), due to various causes. So, for example, if you are a male smoker, then your average life is 2250 days shorter than for average male non-smokers.

CAUSE DAYS LOST (on average) per lifetime

being an unmarried male

3500

being a smoker (male)

2250

heart disease (average)

2100

being an unmarried female

1600

being 30% overweight

1300

being a coal miner

1100

cancer

900

being 20% overweight

900

consuming an additional 100 Cal/day

210

average vehicle accidents

207

from pneumonia or flu

141

alcohol (US av)

130

accident in home

95

suicide

95

diabetes

95

homocide

90

legal drug misuse

90

having an accident (avg risk job)

74

drowning

41

job with radiation exposure

40

falls

39

having an accident (safe job)

30

burns

27

energy generation

24

illicit drug use

18

poison

17

firearm accident

13

natural radiation

11

medical x-rays

7

coffee (contains carcinogens)

6

oral contraception

5

bicycle accident

5

catastrophes (all)

4

diet drinks (carcinogens)

2

nuclear reactor accident (antinuclear group)

2

nuclear react accident (pronuclear estimate)

0.02

home smoke alarm

–10

pap test

–4

require airbags on all cars

–50

safety improvements 1966-1976

–110

mobile coronary care units

–125

One of the oddest things on this list is the "danger" of being an unmarried male. This simply reflects the fact that unmarried males live, on average, 3500 days less than married males. Why is this? I don't know. It could be that certain males, who are at high risk (e.g. drug users) often don't get married. (In that case, it is the risk causing the unmarried aspect, rather than the other way around.) Maybe women have an instinct for picking men who will live long. Of course, it is also possible that marriage does increase your lifetime.