The whole idea of risk assessment conjures up the image of the magician who appears on stage accompanied by a formal dinner table set for eight. With little fanfare, he takes hold of a corner of the white linen tablecloth and deftly snatches the cloth from beneath the settings. Not a plate cracked, not a fingerbowl out of place, not a wine glass shattered. Audience members sigh as their heartbeats collectively return to normal. Certain disaster instantly becomes calm, helped on by the smug grin on the magician's face. Raucous applause erupts.
Though an amazing feat to the audience, the magician simply added a touch of the dramatic to a demonstration of the basic laws of physics. To him, it's no big deal to overcome the inertia of a dinner plate once he's determined the risk involved in actually pulling the cloth. He determines that risk by practicing backstage with metal plates.
He relies on good sense and good science, which is the bedrock of what Newt Gingrich and the Contract With America set out to do.
But the art in the magician's act - and the art in risk assessment in general - is performing this before a live group, whose members are as likely as not to protest the very thought of such a seemingly impossible act out of fear of the result.
That ``audience'' in the risk assessment debate now in Congress includes environmentalists who believe the Contract With America will revise federal risk mandates so drastically that the goblets of American air and water purity surely must tumble. They believe ambitious state legislatures should rush to fix the damage.
The result, some claim, would be a patchwork of state regulations based on risk assessments so varied that no manufacturer - especially a small one - could meet them economically or practically.
But some states don't need the elimination of a federal rule to impose their own versions of laws.
The 10th Amendment allows states to assume powers not specifically denied them by federal law. Places such as California, which set recycling goals for this year that it will not soon meet, come to mind.
One could debate the question of whether Newt practices offstage. But undeniably, industry, including the plastics industry, has a far greater reason to study whether the elimination of regulation outweighs the uncertainty that accompanies the effort.
Part of the reason for the plastics industry's fervent support of risk assessment legislation relates to Congress' past failure to consider any result of risks posed by a single problem. Had there been such consideration, Superfund legislation wouldn't exist.
Similarly, industry has been battling the attitude held by Inform President Joanna Underwood, who noted during that group's recent unveiling of its ``Toxics Watch 1995'' report that ``one pound of waste is a pound of risk.''
Many industry leaders agree risk assessment of a new kind needs to be applied to federal environmental law. All we really need is confidence in the guy pulling the cloth.
King is the Washington-based East Coast reporter for Plastics News.