Posts

2016-02-24: Math errors and risk reporting

2016-02-20: Apple VS FBI

2016-02-19: More Zika may be better than less

2016-02-17: Dependent Non-Commuting Random Variable Systems

2016-01-14: Life at the multifurcation

2015-09-28: AI ain't that smart

2015-06-24: MathEpi citation tree

2015-03-31: Too much STEM is bad

2015-03-24: Dawn of the CRISPR age

2015-02-12: A Comment on How Biased Dispersal can Preclude Competitive Exclusion

2015-02-09: Hamilton's selfish-herd paradox

2015-02-08: Risks and values of microparasite research

2014-11-10: Vaccine mandates and bioethics

2014-10-18: Ebola, travel, president

2014-10-17: Ebola comments

2014-10-12: Ebola numbers

2014-09-23: More stochastic than?

2014-08-17: Feynman's missing method for third-orders?

2014-07-31: CIA spies even on congress

2014-07-16: Rehm on vaccines

2014-06-21: Kurtosis, 4th order diffusion, and wave speed

2014-06-20: Random dispersal speeds invasions

2014-05-06: Preservation of information asymetry in Academia

2014-04-16: Dual numbers are really just calculus infinitessimals

2014-04-14: More on fairer markets

2014-03-18: It's a mad mad mad mad prisoner's dilemma

2014-03-05: Integration techniques: Fourier--Laplace Commutation

2014-02-25: Fiber-bundles for root-polishing in two dimensions

2014-02-17: Is life a simulation or a dream?

2014-01-30: PSU should be infosocialist

2014-01-12: The dark house of math

2014-01-11: Inconsistencies hinder pylab adoption

2013-12-24: Cuvier and the birth of extinction

2013-12-17: Risk Resonance

2013-12-15: The cult of the Levy flight

2013-12-09: 2013 Flu Shots at PSU

2013-12-02: Amazon sucker-punches 60 minutes

2013-11-26: Zombies are REAL, Dr. Tyson!

2013-11-22: Crying wolf over synthetic biology?

2013-11-21: Tilting Drake's Equation

2013-11-18: Why $1^\infty != 1$

2013-11-15: Adobe leaks of PSU data + NSA success accounting

2013-11-14: 60 Minutes misreport on Benghazi

2013-11-11: Making fairer trading markets

2013-11-10: L'Hopital's Rule for Multidimensional Systems

2013-11-09: Using infinitessimals in vector calculus

2013-11-08: Functional Calculus

2013-11-03: Elementary mathematical theory of the health poverty trap

2013-11-02: Proof of the area of a circle using elementary methods

Math errors and risk reporting

On Sunday evening, 60 Minutes gave an update to their story about Lumber Liquidators importation of lamenant flooring with high levels of formaldehyde. Turns out, the CDC has released a risk-assessment report. But the report has an error -- it fails to correctly convert between feet and meters at one point, leading to a big mis-calculation in the risk of cancer associated with the formaldehyde release. Got to get your units right, everybody! Remember the Mars climate orbiter!!

But the report has an interesting perspective as well. On pages 36 and 37, it states that these floors are conservatively estimated to cause 2-9 more cases of cancer per 100,000 people exposured, and then points out that more an 1/3rd of all people living in the United states will develop cancer. Reading between the lines, the suggestion is that these numbers are very low, and maybe shouldn't be a general concern to the public.

I think it's interesting to juxtapose this with another on-going issue -- the Takata airbag recall. This recall is effecting 34 million airbags, about 1 in every 7 cars in the US, and costing more than 2 billion dollars. So far, around 8 people have died. If we multiply the deaths by a factor of 10 to account for injuries, we're in the ballpark of 20 million dollars per American hurt by their airbag.

Now, airbags -- that's a real immediate issue. Cancer risk from formaldehyde is much less obvious, since it happens over a long time and might be confounded with many other factors. But let's take the (incorrectly) reported numbers of 2-9 cases per 100,000 exposures. We live in a country of around 300 million. Suppose 1 million (1 in 100) of those people get exposed. Then that's about 20 - 90 cases of cancer. At the the cost rate of the airbag recall, it would be reasonable to expect Lumber Liquidators to pay 400 million - 1.8 billion dollars to fix the problem -- quite a pretty penny. The corrected numbers in the CDC model are 6-30 cases per 100,000, so 600 million - 10 billion dolars!

These numbers seem out of wack with reality, one way or the other. I guess it's up to us to figure out which is the right way.

References