The Houston Texans are holding training camp in Houston, where it has been routinely very hot and humid. What the team is doing is making a clear distinction between the assessment of human health risk (in this case, from heatstroke and dehydration) and the management of these risks. It’s an interesting lesson showing why the conventional methods of human health risk assessment used by government are so flawed.
Normally, football teams repair to where the weather is at least somewhat more pleasant to undertake the physically grueling task of preparing for the season. But the Houston Texans are managing risk not by relying on the Precautionary Principle, which calls for avoiding any activity or substance that is not certain to be risk-free. They are managing risk by monitoring players and managing their diets. It’s an approach that relies more on science and less on fear of the unknown.
Wall Street Journal reporter Reed Albergotti writes (limited time access without subscription):
The Texans have not only opted to stay home, they’re holding morning practices outdoors in the full sunlight. The team says practicing in the heat will help the players stay fresher during early-season games, which are often hot (the Texans play at Miami in the upcoming season’s second week).
This sweltering strategy has put the Texans at the forefront of an intriguing scientific question: How do you keep 90 enormous men in helmets and plastic pads full of fluids and electrolytes during two weeks of hard practice in stifling heat?
The team is applying science to manage risk:
To keep players from withering away, Geoff Kaplan, the Texans head athletic trainer, and Roberta Anding, the team’s head dietician, have devised a plan that combines careful monitoring with cutting-edge nutrition. They’ve ordered shipments of electrolyte-filled coconut water, filled the team buffet with foods like squash, tomatoes and other vegetables packed with large amounts of potassium, magnesium and other electrolytes, and prescribed players jugs of extra-salty energy drinks like Gatorade before bed. In cases of extreme fluid loss, players have been hooked up to IV drips of a saline mix.
But Kaplan said some players have lost up to 14 pounds in morning practices (in the afternoon the team works out inside an inflated bubble that brings the temperature down to about 80 degrees). Energy drinks alone can’t replenish all the electrolytes in the body. So the Texans use food to combat the problem. This year, they’ve been salting the food prepared for players as much as possible without giving it an unbearable taste. Some players have asked about the risks of high blood pressure, but the Texans say new research shows that combining sodium with vegetables like sweet potatoes and fruits like watermelon, which are high in potassium and calcium, cancel out the negative effects of the salt.
As a result, Anding mandates that players fill at least one third of their plate with vegetables. “Their first plate belongs to me,” she said.
If this were a government agency managing heatstroke risk, there is no chance it would do so this way. The agency would mandate that the team to train where it is cooler and require it to prevent exposure to heat. And it’s conceivable that this could be an appropriate risk management strategy if the government were dealing with regular people instead of very highly trained (and motivated) professional athletes.
A government agency would do something else that’s different, however. It would first exaggerate the risk of heatstroke and dehydration. For example, if the best unbiased estimate of the incidence of heatstroke was 0.1%, the agency would say that incidence could be as high as 1%, 10%, or maybe more. Whereas the best unbiased estimate is equally likely to over- or understate the true but unknown value, a “could be as high as” estimate is much more likely to overstate than understate.
People will reasonably misconstrue a “could be as high as” estimate to be the same thing as a best unbiased estimate, and the agency will do nothing to correct this misunderstanding. Having been purposely misinformed, the public will be more readily support a stringent regulation based on the Precautionary Principle rather than on science.