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With this website, ACSH wishes to give readers a more accurate perspective on the real, documented risks to life in twenty-first century America.

The popular media presents many small or unsubstantiated exposures as real, life-threatening risks; consumers may justifiably become concerned and alter lifestyles for little or no good reason.

The American Council on Science and Health, ACSH, is a nonprofit, tax-exempt public health advocacy organization directed and advised by over 350 distinguished physicians and scientists representing a full spectrum of specialties in science and medicine.

ACSH was founded in 1978 by a group of scientists who had become concerned that many important public policies related to health and the environment did not have a sound scientific basis. These scientists created the organization to add reason and balance to debates about public health issues and bring common sense views to the public.

For more about ACSH, see: http://www.acsh.org/about/

Emphasis on small, poorly-documented risks to life and health distract attention from the larger, substantiated risks. For example, a quick look at the Risk Rings for “exposures” clearly demonstrates that smoking was a huge contributor to Americans’ death—the odds of dying from tobacco exposure in 2002 was 1 in 685; in contrast, the odds of dying from exposure to the dry cleaning fluid perchloroethylene (PERC) was nearly 1 in 6 million—yet laws are passed restricting PERC, and media reports have encouraged avoidance of this supposedly deadly substance. California has passed a law that requires labeling of any substance in any consumer product that has been shown to be carcinogenic—but the data so demonstrating are predominantly high-dose studies of rodents that have little (if any) relevance to human health (see “California's Proposition 65 and Its Impact on Public Health”, and “America's War on 'Carcinogens': Reassessing The Use of Animal Tests to Predict Human Cancer Risk”). Such misdirection of public attention fuels unnecessary anxiety and raises the costs of consumer products for all without any proof of public benefit.

We have shown the data in two main forms. First, we have the Riskometer, a graphic that dynamically demonstrates the actual, documented number of American deaths caused by the 15 leading causes of death (bodily conditions such as heart disease), and by the leading fatal exposures (outside agents such as smoking and firearms). Second, we present Risk Rings that express the same data in a different format. The size of each Ring is proportional to the number of Americans dying from that cause. In addition, there are odds of dying from each cause in each Ring—visible when each Ring is clicked. Again, one set of Rings depicts deaths from the 15 leading causes, and the other from exposures. Scanning a set of Rings gives an immediate sense of the relative contribution of each cause of death to the total.

It is important to note that the risks and odds of dying represented on this site reflect the risks relevant to the total population of Americans—not to individuals. For example, heart disease was responsible for one in 430 deaths (based on a total U.S. population of 300 million). But it would be impossible from such data to extrapolate to the risk of death from heart disease for any individual. There are sites that will allow one to calculate such risks, or to estimate whether one has a high or low risk of particular diseases. Links to such sites are provided whenever possible.

There are many ways to evaluate risk to health and many statistical means of quantifying those risks. Our goal in choosing the statistics we used—number of deaths and odds of dying—was to make the comparisons between big and little risks as transparent and easy to understand as possible. These statistics do not capture all the nuances of the data.

We recognize, for example, that presenting only the total number of deaths from a given cause does not provide all pertinent information. For example, the age at which death occurs—the years of potential life lost—is important in determining its public health significance. As our paper (see the "Data" menu tab) notes, it would not be unusual to find a number of deaths from cancer in people in their 7th decade of life. It would, however, be highly suspect and worthy of further investigation to find such deaths occurring in people in their 30s. In order to keep our site as straightforward and easily navigable as possible, we did not attempt to include such data.

The numbers on which this site is based will certainly change as medical breakthroughs occur and we learn more about how to prevent and cure various diseases or avoid life-threatening exposures. It is less likely, however, that the relative risk of dying from the most common causes will alter dramatically—even though the scientific literature on which those numbers are based is continually being updated. For example, even though the number of Americans dying from obesity-related causes has been reevaluated several times over the last few years, obesity still ranks second, after smoking, as a leading cause of death. If and when this and other rankings change significantly, our site will be updated.

ACSH's Riskometer website is designed to show which causes of death are real threats to Americans and which ones are not worth the widespread media attention they repeatedly attract. We hope that it helps keep risks to health in perspective.

This website compiles important risk statistics and presents them in dynamic graphics for quick reference anytime.

We would like to hear your feedback. Please contact us at ACSH with your comments and suggestions.

Contact us at acsh@acsh.org, or through our website at www.acsh.org .

American Council
on Science and Health



Website design and construction
by Chickering Associates, Inc.


Year 2002 statistics were the most recent complete statistics available. Total USA deaths in 2002 were 2,443,387.

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Putting Risk
In Perspective


Americans are bombarded daily with warnings of dire threats to their health. Favorite scares include ones about traces of various chemicals in the environment, and about both synthetic and natural food constituents. But in reality, most if not all of these warnings have little to do with the real threats to our health and lives. The
American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) has therefore constructed this website to give Americans a more accurate perspective on the exposures and diseases that have been proven to increase the risk of death for Americans.

The data on this website are based on American deaths in 2002 - the year for which the most complete data were available at the start of this project. They are derived from a comprehensive paper by Dr. John Morgan and colleagues at Loma Linda University - the paper in its entirety may be accessed by clicking the "Data" link at the top of the page.

In 2002, nearly two and one half million Americans lost their lives from various causes.

Our dynamic Riskometer graphic presents the numbers of these deaths that were due to both the leading causes of deaths, and to various exposures.

Because the range of deaths was so large (from essentially zero for trace chemical exposures to nearly 700,000 for heart disease), it would be impossible to show these on one static metric.

Thus our dynamic Riskometer will expand to compare the death toll from each cause to the total number of deaths.

Simply click on each cause and watch the meter expand.

As with the Riskometer, the Risk Rings are separated into two main categories: the leading causes of death - both diseases and injuries, and the exposures that caused deaths.

The size of each ring is proportional to the number of deaths from the specified cause - the same numbers that are presented on the riskometer.

In addition, each ring also presents the probability (risk) of death as the number of people required to produce one death per year for each cause. With this measure, the smaller the number, the greater the risk of dying from that cause. For example, the odds of dying from active smoking are 1 in 771, a much greater risk than the 1 in 17,647 odds of dying from illicit drug use.

Why use death (mortality) and not illness (morbidity)? We use death because the data are more reliable and available. Not every illness is reported to authorities, and thus estimating those numbers could give erroneous results.

To navigate, click the links above this text, or use the menu buttons at the top of the page. The "Data" button takes you behind the scenes to the raw data used to develop the information presented. If you have questions, please contact us.

American Council
on Science and Health
New York