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Comparing risks and mitigation measures

Malcolm Potts, professor of population and family planning | February 13, 2010

I am sure you have been following the sad case of benign but functionally impairing brain tumors in one university electrician exposed to traces of plutonium. Evidence of traces of plutonium were found in a lead container which had been stored at the back of a cupboard in Campbell Hall since the 1940s. It is thought minute traces of the radioactive material were left over from experiments conducted in the 1940 as part of the Manhattan Project. We can all remember the outpouring of sympathy for the unfortunate victim when he sued the University for lack of adequate surveillance of toxic materials.  At the trial epidemiologists testified that the nanogram levels of plutonium were unrelated to the tumors, but as we know the University did the honorable thing and settled out of court for $5.4 million.

Of course I made this up, but with a purpose.

It is a scenario that could be true, because we tend to overreact to things we don’t understand. Plutonium is in bombs so even miniscule amounts appropriately stored would hit the headlines. Conversely, we underestimate things with which we are familiar – such as head injuries in college football. There is compelling evidence from clinical examinations, postmortem studies and functional magnetic imaging that concussion and trauma to the head in college football can have serious, long-term, adverse effects.

I suggest three prudent steps. I suggest every young man on the Cal Football team should be asked to sign a long, detailed form listing the life-long pain he could get from injuries to his knees, the possibility of deteriorating mental function later in life, along with a small but measurable risk of paraplegia during any one game. I used to chair the UC Berkeley Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects and we contrived long informed consent documents that volunteers had to sign prior to even the simplest physiological observations, or most harmless psychology experiments. An experiment with half the risks a player runs in any game would be rejected as unacceptable by the campus ethical committee.

Second, we should all welcome the campus Senate Task Force on Intercollegiate Athletics. This new committee will advise the Chancellor on a self sustaining financial model “noting the problem not only of current but also of cumulative deficits.” The Senate Task Force on Intercollegiate Athletics will report at the April 22 meeting of the Senate.

Lastly, given the proven dangers of intercollegiate football and the dire budget problems of the whole university, I suggest that UC Berkeley becomes the leader in trimming back athletic expenditures. No sport should pose the risk of long-term serious injuries, and genuine sports the university could be proud of should not require a multimillion dollar infrastructure.

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