IN RECENT YEARS science has come to know a great deal more about the hazards that industrialization has brought along with its many benefits. As EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus noted in a speech this week, so much is known about the effects on health of certain chemical pollutants that "we must assume that life now takes place in a minefield of risks from hundreds, perhaps thousands of substances."
Mr. Ruckelshaus offers sensible ideas for reinvigorating government efforts to measure and protect against environmental and work-place risks and to allay growing public worry. But protecting people from future risks is only part of the current policy problem. As knowledge of the effects of toxic chemicals has increased, so have public demands for compensation for those who now suffer the consequences of past exposure. Generally these claims have been dealt with in an atmosphere of great emotion, and the results have been unsatisfactory for both the claimants and the taxpayer.
Workers' compensation systems are supposed to compensate for job-related disabilities or death. But these programs often do not provide benefits for occupational diseases--such as those associated with asbestos exposure--that do not become apparent for many years after exposure or that may result from employment with several different firms.
As a result many workers have turned to product- liability suits against manufacturers of hazardous substances, and state courts have become increasingly lenient about the requirements for showing deliberate fault on the part of the manufacturer. Many workers have won substantial judgments--enough to threaten to put the asbestos industry out of business. As knowledge about other industrial hazards grows, other industries may be similarly threatened. But for all its costs, the process serves the exposed worker poorly. Litigation costs can eat up most of a worker's benefits and, given the vagaries of judges and juries, the pattern of awards is very erratic.
The other approach is to create special compensation systems such as those now being proposed in Congress for people exposed to Agent Orange, low-level radiation and asbestos and the broad range of toxic substances dealt with in the Superfund clean-up program. But as experience with the Black Lung miners' compensation program has demonstrated, once the program exists, pressures mount to expand its coverage and weaken requirements for proving a causative link between exposure and the disease.
Since most people ultimately die of something arguably related to effects of their work or environment, this ad hoc approach leads toward a truly enormous transfer of funds from currently healthy taxpayers to those presumably on their way to a better world. How much compensation is fair and affordable is an issue that shouldn't be dealt with on a piecemeal basis. And a reasonable solution may well require abandoning the idea that it is possible to apply current standards of indemnification to people exposed to hazards that were either unknown or accepted in an earlier time.