Center for Progressive Reform

Poisoned for Pennies

The Economics of Toxics and Precaution

by Frank Ackerman

The term, “Cost-benefit analysis,” is used so frequently that we rarely stop to think about it. But relying on it can lead to some dubious conclusions, as CPR Member Scholar Frank Ackerman points out in this eye-opening book. Inventing dollar values for human life and health, endangered species, and fragile ecosystems does not guide us to better policies, he maintains. Cost-benefit analysis, as practiced today, could have led to damming the Grand Canyon for hydroelectric power, leaving lead in gasoline, and other absurd and harmful decisions.

In clear, understandable language, Ackerman describes an alternative, precautionary approach to making decisions under uncertainty. Once a mere theory, the precautionary principle has now been applied in practice through the European Union’s REACH protocol. Citing major studies, many of which he has directed, he shows that the precautionary approach has not only worked, but has been relatively cheap.

Poisoned for Pennies shows how the misuse of cost-benefit analysis is impeding efforts to clean up and protect our environment, especially in the case of toxic chemicals. According to Ackerman, conservatives—in elected office, in state and federal regulatory agencies, and in businesses of every size—have argued repeatedly that environmental clean-up and protection are simply too expensive. But as he proves, that is untrue in case after case. The book ranges from psychological research to risk analysis to the benefits of aggressive pesticide regulation, and from mad cow disease to vinyl siding. You can’t afford not to read it.

Selected chapters are co-authored by Rachel Massey, Elizabeth A. Stanton, then-CPR Member Scholar Lisa Heinzerling, Anne-Sofie Andersson, Wendy Johnecke, and Brian Roach.


Praise for Poisoned for Pennies

“This excellent book is a great tool for people fighting the environmental hazards in their communities.  Frank Ackerman shows us a valuable common-sense approach to capture the true costs of toxics in our society”

Lois Marie Gibbs, executive director, Center for Health, Environment and Justice


“A leader in environmental economics, Ackerman shows how sleights of hand and unsupported assumptions allow the health of many to be sacrificed for the profits of a few.  In incisively clear prose, he makes the case for new ways of accounting in this global household that we manage for this and future generations.”

Ted Schettler, science director, Science and Environmental Health Network


“Ackerman reveals the fallacies of cost-benefit analysis that are just as diabolical as the fallacies of risk analysis, two constructs designed to protect the bottom line by devaluing the importance of human health.  He builds a convincing case for precaution and prevention.”

Theo Colborn, president, The Endocrine Disruption Exchange


“Ackerman convincingly argues that mistakes measured in dollars can often be undone, but avoidable deaths can’t.  I would argue that ignoring this well-researched book would be a serious mistake that can’t easily be undone.”

Philippe Grandjean, professor, University of Southern Denmark and Harvard School of Public Health


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© Center for Progressive Reform, 2013