Michael KreponDeath by Number

Courtesy of Milton Leitenberg’s research (“The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Bio-Terrorism” in the NONPROLIFERATION REVIEW, 16:1 (March 2009):

Annual deaths in the United States due to cancer: 565,000

Annual deaths in the United States due to tobacco: 440,000

Annual deaths in the United States due to obesity: 400,000

Annual deaths in the United States due to hospital infections: 99,000

Cumulative, global deaths due to bioterrorism: 5

I would add:

Cumulative, global deaths unrelated to Hiroshima and Nagasaki due to battlefield use of nuclear weapons: 0

Of course, the last two numbers could increase radically at any time. But they are strikingly low and incomprehensible, according to most of the literature on bioterrorism and nuclear dangers.


  1. FSB

    On that note, the recent book John Mueller, Atomic Obsession, is interesting reading.

    “Mueller argues that nuclear weapons have never represented much of a threat given states’ fundamental unwillingness to use them. After the focus shifted away from “mutual assured destruction” to the terrorist threat following 9/11, alarmists had a new cause. Yet analysts have consistently overestimated the destructive capabilities of the devices we worry about the most now: suitcase nukes and dirty bombs. Moreover, our current worries about terrorists obtaining such weapons are essentially baseless. As Mueller points out, there is a multitude of reasons why terrorists will not be able to obtain weapons, much less build them themselves and successfully transport them to targets. Mueller goes even further, maintaining that our efforts to prevent the spread of WMDs have produced much more suffering and violence than would have been the case if we took a more realistic view of such weapons. This controversial thesis cuts against the received wisdom promulgated by America’s enormously powerful military-industrial complex. But given how wrong that establishment has been on so many crucial issues over the course of the entire post-World War II era, Mueller’s argument is one that deserves a wide public hearing.”

  2. disbeliver (History)

    ATTN: Michael

    I think the above numbers over simplify the true effects of bio-terrorism

    For nearly a decade the United States led the sanctions regime against Iraq. During this time Iraq was deprived of vital resources such as water purifying chemicals.

    The Dept. of Defense and the United Nations even published reports documenting the expected numbers of Iraqi deaths, especially the children who are the most vulnerable to bio-illness’ seen in non-sanitary water

    Please review the following DoD document: “Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities,” dated January 22, 1991

  3. FSB

    Good point disbeliever.

    Let’s also recall that roughly a million Iraqi civilians, if not more, have died as a result of our WMD-inspired war, according to this MIT official.

    Another, but older MIT study is here.

    I wonder how many Iranian children will die from Hillary Clinton’s sanctions over non-existent Iranian nuclear weapons.

    Even the Iraq sanctions following the Gulf War killed on the order of a million Iraqis — other sources put the number at about half a million…

    Fighting WMDs is more harmful than the WMDs themselves, so far.

  4. Bio Quake (History)

    Biodefense vs. Earthquake Mitigation



    F.B.I., Laying Out Evidence, Closes Anthrax Case

    By Scott Shane

    … The federal government increased spending on biodefense, with a total of nearly $60 billion since 2001 …



    Congressional Research Service

    Earthquakes: Risk, Detection, Warning, and Research

    Peter Folger

    Table 1. Authorized and Enacted Funding for NEHRP [National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program]

    ($ millions)


    FY2005 Authorized … 166.0 Enacted … 127.1

    FY2006 Authorized … 176.5 Enacted … 118.7

    FY2007 Authorized … 181.5 Enacted … 118.5

    FY2008 Authorized … 186.6 Enacted … 121.5

    FY2009 Authorized … 191.8 Enacted … 129.7

    FY2010 Requested … 131.7



    Earthquake Hazards – A National Threat

    . More than 75 million Americans in 39 States face significant risk from earthquakes.

    . Twenty-six urban areas in the United States are at risk of significant seismic activity:

    Albuquerque, N. Mex. … New York, N.Y. … Stockton-Lodi, Calif.



    The ShakeOut Scenario: Fire Following Earthquake

    By Charles R. Scawthorn

    The real concern is portions of Orange County and especially the central Los Angeles basin, where a large plain of relatively uniform dense low-rise buildings provides a fuel bed such that dozens to hundreds of large fires are likely to merge into dozens of conflagrations destroying tens of city blocks, and several of these merging into one or several super conflagrations destroying hundreds of city blocks. Two special concerns exist in this regard: (a) if Santa Ana winds exist (which is not the assumed scenario), losses can be much larger, and (b) if extremely calm conditions exist (which is also not the assumed scenario), the potential exists for a symmetric wind pattern to develop caused by air drawn inward by uprising air from super conflagrations (an example of stack effect). A self-sustaining feedback situation can develop (commonly termed a firestorm), which can be very destructive. While relatively unlikely, this potential should not be ignored. Concern (a) is simply a larger mass conflagration, fed by higher winds. Concern (b) is potentially much worse. Both are potentially catastrophic.

  5. Cameron (History)

    There are inherent differences between being obese and dying and dying from the release of Anthrax/Plague/Smallpox/nuclear chain reactions in your metropolitan area. Conflating the underlying causes of death undermines your point. I can choose to exercise, eat healthier foods and lower my risk of dying due to weight. I don’t see how I can make personal changes that would alter my risk of dying if someone else managed to set off some kind of WMD.

    If you were looking for comparisons I’d use: Gun deaths or deaths due to preventable disease. That makes the point much more succinctly – these are forces outside ourselves that can act to terminate our lives, and things that the money being used to prevent WMD’s from spreading could be used to combat.

    Rational debate can be had about the priorities and amounts spent on each of them, but I think that the numbers presented are comparing apples to oranges.

  6. anono

    FSB: In the case of Iraq and Iran, the alleged WMDs..

  7. just curious (History)

    How many have been killed in armed conflict, world-wide, post 1945 by small arms and light weapons – the true weapons of mass destruction?

  8. kme

    Excising Hiroshima and Nagasaki from your last number seems somewhat arbitrary.

  9. Azr@el (History)

    “Annual deaths in the United States due to obesity: 400,000”

    Are we eating ourselves to death faster than sanctions can starve our enemies? If you truly can’t bring yourselves appreciate the irony of it, you simply belong to the wrong species.

    On a tangential note, I wonder if the number of Israelis suffering obesity exceeds the number of Gazan children suffering malnutrition? I’ll have to look up the numbers with the OECD I guess.

  10. Robert Brown (History)

    I use a couple of similar graphs in teaching undergraduates. Specifically, I show it at the end of the lecture on terrorism in an international security class, to help the students be interested in the material but also keep the (budgetary and scientific) needs in perspective.

  11. FSB

    Cameron makes a good point: “I can choose to exercise, eat healthier foods and lower my risk of dying due to weight. I don’t see how I can make personal changes that would alter my risk of dying if someone else managed to set off some kind of WMD.”

    However, one does have a measure of control over dying from terrorist attacks, though admittedly this control is small and time-delayed.

    Since terrorists (IRA, ETA, AQ etc.) have largely political aims: UK out of Ireland; Spain out of Catalonia; US out of muslim lands — one can choose to elect non-interventionist political leaders who will yield to some of the legitimate aims of these groups. (Note: I am not arguing that the methods of these groups are legitimate, only that some of their causes may be).

    As Daniel Levy argued in Ha’aretz, such groups may use ‘improper means to fight for a just cause’

  12. FSB

    Good point by kme also.

    If we take the number of deaths from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be ~300,000 this is still less than the deaths of Iraqi civlians from the Gulf War sanctions and the ongoing Iraq war (~2,000,000 dead civilians and rising…).

    The basic argument, cold tough it is in its comparison of death numerics, is sound: fighting WMDs has had a higher human toll than WMDs.

  13. George William Herbert (History)

    There seems to be a willingness to ignore a fairly large number of documented chemical weapon casualties in WW I and beyond, in warfare and occasional attacks on civilians.

    And speaking of expanding horizons, how many people were killed by modern artillery? 75% of military casualties on battlefields since WW I, plus a goodly number of battlefield civilians, something like that?

  14. Steven Dolley (History)

    I’ve jaywalked hundreds of times and never been hit by a car. Thus, jaywalking has been proven safe. There are problems with this kind of analysis.

    Also problems with “No one has been killed by nuclear weapons on the battlefield, except those who were killed by nuclear weapons on the battlefield.”

  15. looking closely (History)

    Terrorism isn’t necessarily about KILLING people, its about terror.

    “Only” 3000 people died in the 9-11 bombings, but the economic and psychological damage was enormous

  16. Bruce (History)

    I was sure Saddam had killed 100s of thousands of Kurds and Marsh Arabs with biological weapons, and similar numbers of Iranians with mustard gas during the Iran/Iraq war.

    I understand that many loony’s on left think Saddam and his family had the right to do that, and wanted Saddam to be able to keep committing mass murder for several generations to come.

    I’m not sure why his use of such weapons are not classified as bioterrorism …

  17. ig (History)

    Annual deaths directly attributed to slowly rising levels of atmospheric CO2? 0

    Amount of money warm mongers aim to spend to hold CO2 levels at 550ppm by 2050? ~$429,000,000 (3% US GDP)

  18. Lawrence Person (History)

    You’re forgetting the many documented cases of governments (Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, etc) using chemical and biological weapons against their own people. True, a mere drop in the bucket compared to the 100,000,000+ people communist governments killed of their own people by various meaqns (engineered starvation being the most popular), but still…

  19. Cameron (History)

    FSB, “personal” political change wouldn’t make that big a change in my state of worry about the availability of WMD’s. A system of checks to proliferation has to account for people who just don’t like me/the city I’m in: either McVeigh or Osama, the IRA or FARC.

    And while some of those groups may be fighting for a nominally just cause, a cause can also be judged by the actions of its supporters.

  20. Kendall (History)

    Hospital infections don’t have people cowering in fear for their safety over every public word they say. Yet Comedy Central drops to their knees and submits under mere threats of death and harm from the people that, if they could, would employ bioterror.

    It’s not about how many die. It’s about what kind of life is available to those of us who live.

    So, if A kills fewer people than B, A deserves – ipso facto – less attention and resources than B? Slavery in the U.S killed far fewer per year than the civil war; should we have kept slavery then?


  21. Wayne Richards (History)

    Disbeliever and FSB: You haven’t quite got the whole story. After the Brits occupied Basra they found warehouses full of chlorine, the standard chemical for water purification. Why was Saddam stockpiling it?
    Two-part answer. One: he wasn’t, fully. Enclaves of his supporters got purified water; areas of discontent got the crap.
    Two: As to the rest, we just don’t know, but we knew he had plenty of chlorine left over. The fact that he wasn’t using much for water purification suggested strongly that the remainder was being used for chemical warfare weapons.
    And he had a history of using just such weaponry — on his own citizens.

  22. dennymack (History)

    By changing the terms you can make your statistics say just what you want, for instance leaving out death by nuclear weapons as Steven Dolley noted.
    You might also get a different impression of the risk of bioterrorism is one replaces the one year, bioterrorism only term with: “How many have died from smallpox, total.” If bio-terror reintroduces that pathogen, such a stat would be relevant, if not directly comparable due to medical advances.
    I do not stay up at night worrying about such unlikely things, but I am glad someone does.
    Some posters may want to consider the lives that would have been lost had certain regimes not been destroyed. Endlessly debatable, yes, but one cannot pretend that leaving in power Japanese militarists, or Baathists for that matter, would not have cost in human life.
    Take a close look at the 20th Century, and people’s own governments will stand out as the greatest weapons of mass destruction. The nature and aims of states and non-state actors matter. It may not be the total number of weapons, but rather who has them that matters.

  23. Cameron (History)

    Bruce –

    Saddam didn’t use biological weapons to attack Kurdish enclaves, or Iran. He used chemical weapons, which HAVE been used for terrorist attacks, HAVE been used in a large scale manner in wars, and are a different type of weapon which shouldn’t be conflated with biological WMD’s.

  24. Michael Anderson (History)
  25. Andrew

    While I agree that a healthy perspective is always warranted, and that our efforts to prevent the spread of WMDs may have produced more suffering and violence than would have been the case if we took a more realistic view of such weapons, it is also important to not disregard the effect that WMDs have had.

    The CDC has estimated that approximately 11,000 excess deaths, most caused by thyroid cancer linked to exposure to iodine-131 have resulted from nuclear weapons testing. The United States has recognized and paid out more than 1.38 billion dollars in damages to victims of nuclear testing, though some critics say that this is not nearly enough. The French government has also recognized the impact that its nuclear weapons testing has had on its own people and Algerians who were exposed to nuclear testing. Veterans in the British Army are also suing the Ministry of Defense for negligence. Russia has offered some compensation to victims of its testing, while China has been largely silent on the issue. The surviving victims of the Japanese bombings are called hibakusha (被爆者), a Japanese word that literally translates to “explosion-affected people,” they have suffered a fair amount of discrimination and negative health effects.

    So a more full accounting of nuclear weapons would reveal a much higher amount of suffering, and this wouldn’t begin to explore the largely negative effects of biological and chemical weapons. Nonetheless, it is always important to put the suffering in to perspective with other sources of death as well. Further, there is also a discussion to be had about the suffering and violence which have happened under the banner of stopping the spread of WMDs (though this may be more a criticism of the means used than a specific argument in favor of proliferation).

  26. mike (History)

    Wow – this is an absolutely ridiculous post, and the later commenters have it right – I especially like the reference to global warming. The earlier posts which somehow manage to blame the US for deaths in Iraq caused by Saddam Hussein are especially moronic. It is a good reminder, though, how dense some people can be – and how ignorant, for as many others have pointed out, to get to 0 deaths caused by bioterrorism you have to ignore a whole lot of stuff.

  27. Sheila (History)

    Unit 731

    When Germ Warfare Happened
    Seventy years ago, Japan’s bio-attacks killed hundreds of thousands. The effects linger today.


  28. Martin Dirksen (History)

    Dear Sirs,
    Maybe You will find the following article interesting about the cruelties of biological warfare, in this case the infamous japanese Unit 731
    See this:http://www.city-journal.org/2010/20_2_germ-warfare.html I can see no reason to talk down the risks of Biological Weapon, neither does the UN and other organisations.Sincerley Yours

  29. bill (History)

    remember, before any analysis, Blame America First.

    It makes your diatribes much easier.

  30. MK (History)

    For reasons I don’t quite understand, the worms came out of the woodwork on this one. I have spared ACW readers from the most venomous comments.

  31. MarkoB

    It is interesting to see in our field a liking for risk analyses right in the midst of the financial crisis. I think this type of analysis might qualify as a risk fallacy (see the philosophy of risk homepage). Consider. Kennedy stated that during the cuban missile crisis the “risk” of nuclear war was a 1/3 to even (I think those were the figures he used). Running a risk of 1/3 to even of a war that could have led to billions of deaths was a pretty risky thing for the superpowers to have done. I am glad that the cold war is over. Scott Sagan I think has made the point that that 0 does not mean that the risk of accident during the cold war was low, and if you believe normal accidents theory then some accident in a tightly coupled launch on warning system is inevitable. Also people are more scared of terrorism not just because of the hype. The view that people have, for good or ill is not the point here, is that the risk of terror is out of their control and is kind of random, whereas if they eat well, exercise and don’t smoke they won’t be in that list of heart disease victims. Although as Keynes pointed out, in the long run we are all dead anyway.

  32. FSB

    Seems like a lot of huffing and puffing over the long weekend!

    Re. WW I casualties from chemical attack — it was a minor contributor

    “The contribution of gas weapons to the total casualty figures was relatively minor.”

    About 100,000 or so.

    Thus my contention stands: fighting WMDs has been more harmful to humans than the WMDs themselves.

    MarkoB: as I pointed out above, the risk of terror is not completely out of our control.

  33. jcBush (History)

    I’m confused about this post, and many of the responses to it. Can’t you just as easily say there is some sort of correlation between increased spending on an issue and reduced number of deaths? Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work?

    e.g., if we spend more on cancer research its probable that less people would die from cancer. Therefore if we spend less on terrorism wouldn’t more people would die from terrorism as a result?

    Look, I agree, traditional risk analysis dealing with specific issues like terrorism seems way out of wack, but I’d suggest that the answer is far more nuanced and complicated then lots more people die of cancer therefore cancer is a greater risk. More than likely, the risk analysis model itself is either not being correctly applied, or not appropriate for the question entirely.

    However, the same logic can be applied to the question of deaths from the prevention of the spread of WMDs versus deaths from WMDs themselves. By asking that, you are looking at the wrong metric; the real question should be a comparison between “deaths caused by the prevention of the spread of WMDs” versus “deaths AVOIDED by the prevention of the spread of WMDs”.

    I don’t claim to know the answer, but at least that frames the problem correctly. Sure the answer to that question is complicated (so much so that we may never have a good answer), but at least it intellectually honest.

    To paraphrase Taleb in “Black Swan” – better to be lost and have no map at all, then have the wrong map and not know it.

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