Summary of "Acceptable Risk?: Making Decisions in a Toxic Environment"

Summary of

Acceptable Risk?: Making Decisions in a Toxic Environment

By Lee Clarke

Summary written by T.A. O'Lonergan, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Acceptable Risk?: Making Decisions in a Toxic Environment, Lee Clarke, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 220 pp.

Acceptable Risk?: Making Decisions in a Toxic Environment will be of interest to those who seek an understanding of the decision-making process amid the chaos following a toxic contamination accident. The first chapter considers creating risks. The chapter is an explanation of the events leading up to the point when a transformer coolant breached containment in the state office building in Binghamton, New York. The transformer contained polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) which, when burned at high temperatures, produce highly toxic substances (dioxins). The remainder of the book is an examination of the management of the clean-up and the identification of workers and inhabitants exposed.

Chapter two examines the organisation of decontamination efforts and medical surveillance in the midst of organizational chaos. It examines what the author terms 'organizational anarchy' wherein each state, federal and local organisation goes about its self-selected responsibilities without the benefit of an overall organizational effort. Chapter three is an examination of the need for constricting the field of organisations involved in the decontamination project. The author addresses the involvement of: local, county, state and federal agencies in the Binghamton clean-up.

Chapter four examines the resolution of organizational dilemmas in a discussion of the Broome County government's risk. Clarke offers a systematic examination of the process of making decisions about the Binghamton clean-up project. The first phase of such an effort is to define the problem, followed by assessing the consequences. This is followed by the ordering of alternatives and the constructing of acceptable risk assessments. The final phase is the acceptance of risk. Chapter five is devoted to the organisation of medical surveillance. The author offers a discussion on assessing the problem and the initiation of surveillance. The problem of malleable science is addressed prior to a discussion of the division of labour which emerges during the process of medical surveillance.

Chapter six is devoted to the organising efforts required to begin the decontamination process. The author offers an attempt at a solution to the chemical problems. The chapter closes with a discussion of symbolic risk: the decision whether to decontaminate or destroy the Binghamton state office building. This is followed by a discussion of the treatment of exposed workers and the need to organize their dissent activities. The final chapter is devoted to the organisation of risk. This chapter examines: the disruption of routine, the structural basis of individual dissent, symbols and organizational dissent, and theories of choice. The author discusses the two phases of clean-up efforts. The first phase is the undirected efforts which multiple agencies made toward clean-up. Many of these efforts were not only misguided, but needlessly exposed more workers to high levels of contamination. The second phase is the State of New York's assumption of the risk and their role as organising agency for the decontamination efforts. The text is followed by two appendices: the first identifying the players and the second offering a methodological accounting.

Acceptable Risk?: Making Decisions in a Toxic Environment is a careful examination of a single case of the creation and assessment of risk and the resultant medical surveillance and decontamination efforts. While addressing a particular incident, the overall approach is applicable to other incidents of toxic contamination.