As researchers use ever more sophisticated technology to create a growing list of drugs, vaccines, foods, and devices, potential risks stalk the process. With print and electronic media prodding them along, scientists, policymakers, business people, and the public have to consider the downside of inventions as well as the benefits.

Headlines continually trumpet health risks--fluoridation caught the public's eye in the 1950s with stories that the procedure could rot teeth and cause cancer. Today's headlines question whether cholesterol-fighting drugs called statins increase the incidence of heart attacks and whether cyclooxygenase-2 inhibitors put arthritis patients at greater risk of the muscle-wasting disease rhabdomyolysis. Should millions of people taking these pharmaceuticals stop treatment? That depends on how much the possible side effects outweigh the drugs' benefits.

When it comes to risk, biotechnology and genetically modified (GM) foods are no stranger to controversy. Do taco chips made from genetically modified corn really cause...

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