The recent headlines commanded by two disasters of historic proportions -- the anniversary of the tsunami that flooded the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors and the settlement of the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill litigation -- remind us not only of our vulnerability to catastrophes but also of government officials' continuing ineptitude in managing communications during crises that threaten the public's health.
In this age of multiple sources of unfiltered images the world witnessed both these unfolding developments in real time. While we watched unfathomable destruction we were also alerted to questions about the potential unseen danger. Regardless of our location, we shared fears of the threat lurking in the rushing waters and gushing oil. And since the use of nuclear power and the advisability of deep water oil drilling had been matters of intense political controversy we were aware that there were many interests with a vested stake in how we viewed these events. The escaping radiation and leaking oil would intensify the debates over the threats to health and safety posed by these industries. Accurate information about them would now be an even more critical resource for everyone with an interest in their own health as well as the future of our planet.
It is most unfortunate that a legacy of both disasters is the suspicion that government officials -- both Japanese and American -- were neither completely forthcoming nor totally accurate with information about what was happening and what might be the consequences.
In the case of Japan, government officials appeared to rush to minimize the unseen peril. They initially assessed the danger of the damaged nuclear reactors at Level 4 of 7, meaning "an accident with local consequences," on the International Atomic Energy Agency Scale designed to communicate the severity of power plant accidents. It took a month for the government to acknowledge that the plant had suffered a Level 7 "major accident."
Arguably, since officials were unable to stabilize the reactors in the weeks following the tsunami, the danger increased as radiation leaks and explosions continued. Still, during this intervening month scientists in Europe and America reported that their models suggested that Japan faced a disaster of major proportions, while the Governor of Tokyo announced that radioactive iodine levels in the tap water of that city about 150 miles south of the disaster was more than twice the level considered safe for infants. Now a year later, an anniversary video by New York Times features residents outside the 12-mile evacuation zone living with the uncertainty of their continued exposure to high levels of radiation.
Similarly, in the three weeks immediately following the explosion of The Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig leased by BP, estimates of the oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico rose from 1,000 to 5,000 to 210,000 barrels of crude oil per day. As these amounts became increasingly difficult to imagine, so too were the health and environmental threats. As the questions mounted the search for answers seemed more elusive. To this day, among the questions remaining unanswered are whether clean-up workers, who were discouraged from using respirators and protective gear, suffering from preventable injuries; whether the chemicals used to disperse the oil in the water pose long term health risks; and are the health threats gone if we can no longer see the oil?
A remarkable feature of these disasters is that they illustrate just how little progress we've made in ensuring that the government provides us with information to make reasoned decisions about protecting ourselves and our communities during and after a crisis. Not unlike the 1918 flu pandemic or the 2005 levee breaks after Hurricane Katrina, government officials from Japan to Louisiana appeared to "spin" the facts to offer reassurances rather than admit to uncertainties that might "unduly" worry us.
To be sure, there is not just precedent but reasons for this government behavior. We prefer assurances, and we want to believe that public officials, who are not beholden to commercial interests with a stake in the outcome, are in control. We have a low tolerance for extended uncertainty and a desire to attach blame for our suffering. Americans, in particular, rush to judgment and to file legal actions. If an information void develops when known facts are insufficient, many embrace misinformation if offered by those who agree with them. In crises pervaded by uncertainty, we help foster an environment of mistrust.
If we really want accurate information and danger assessments during a health-threatening crisis, we must demand that government officials refrain from protecting us from the bad news. In turn, we must be willing to accept uncertainty and refrain from recriminations until more is known. Government officials must plan for public skepticism and not be guided by the potential legal consequences of providing accurate information. Where appropriate, the government should engage credible and independent experts who can assist the public in evaluating the threats. These experts need not be managed to provide a "united front" of consensus where none exists. We must be then be willing to listen with open minds. While we should not stifle disagreement, we should insist that those seeking to be heard have the credibility to inform the debate. We should recognize and shun politicians, talk show hosts, and celebrities who use a crisis to further their political agenda or raise their public profiles.
If we want government officials to treat us like adults we must learn how to act like informed consumers of vital and complicated information. If not for ourselves, we must do so for our children and their future on this planet.
Leslie Gerwin is Associate Director, Program in Law and Public Affairs, Princeton University; she teaches Public Health Law and Policy as an Adjunct Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.