Nearly ever aspect of our life involves risk from choices we make individually to those made by government and society. We possess more knowledge about our physical world today than any time in the history of man but often our decisions are made based more on emotion and conjecture and less on facts and careful analysis. Progress brought on by science and technology has changed our world for the better but has also had negative impact as well raising concerns about the risks to health and safety. We are on the precipice of even greater discoveries and societal change. The question is how will the public, private, and independent sectors of society work together to deal with the changes and challenges ahead.
These challenges have created an element of fear for citizens in looking at the world around them. The news media often contribute to the public’s fears, which can include “worries” about personal economic security, the environment, their health care, growth, and, in the case of terrorism, threat to life. It is the job of government to insure public safety and deal with legitimate problems, but efforts to address these issues should be based upon facts and empirical analysis of the need and the impact. It is also the responsibility of the media to accurately inform the public. In 1870 Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “Knowledge is the antidote to fear.…”
Fifty years ago, David Sarnoff, the founder of RCA and modern radio and television communications, wrote an article, titled The Fabulous Future, which praised the positive impact of engineering and science. He also noted that unfounded “disparagement” of science and engineering was going to grow in this century. He noted in the article:
“...an avalanche of advances will be forthcoming in the sphere of science and technology is not a matter of surmise. The new types of energy released by the atom and controlled by the electron have already proved highly effective. The features of vital technical growths can be discerned in numberless embryos in the womb of science: our amazing network of research laboratories. But these features will be matched by even more significant developments in the political, social, and moral spheres. Indeed, the pressures of technical changes will themselves intensify problems of adjustment, forcing us to seek solutions in line with our ideals of a good society.”
A free society must deal with the benefits and problems of progress and change but those decisions must be based upon fact, not emotion. Therefore, public understanding of critical issues, including public officials, will heavily impact the future of how we deal with the challenges facing our world. They will be reflected in laws created by legislatures, city councils, and other bodies; in judicial decisions and litigation; and in how the private and nonprofit sectors and citizens attempt to address public concerns of risk to society.
Qualitative risk assessment has its roots in the beginning of human history. For example, people observed that human exposure to particular plants, such as hemlock, led to adverse health effects. In addition, they noted that some beneficial materials, such as wine, had adverse effects when taken in excess. As a result, they recognized both qualitatively and quantitatively that some products of the environment posed risks. In the main, the effects they noted were those that occurred almost immediately. Long-term effects were difficult to discern, especially when life spans were short and other health problems, particularly infectious diseases, were more prevalent.
Although the situation changed somewhat over the centuries, it was not until the 20th century that humans learned how to control infectious diseases. As a result, people have been living longer and have experienced an increased incidence of chronic health problems.
Concurrently, modern society learned to synthesize a variety of chemicals and to extract and manipulate naturally occurring chemicals. Some of the resulting chemical exposures have contributed to an increase of chronic diseases, especially cancer.
To protect the public from long-term adverse health effects from chemical exposures, a large number of environmental and occupational statutes have been enacted since 1970. Most of these laws and associated rules require that the risk from chemicals be assessed, whether the chemicals are in the workplace, the ambient air, water, soil, or food supply. The results of the risk assessments are used to set limits on environmental or workplace levels of these chemicals.
A number of risk assessment approaches were codified in policy. Unfortunately, they reflect the state of science as it was decades ago and do not incorporate current understanding of the different ways chemicals cause toxicity. Thus, there is an increasing gap between the scientist's best judgment about the risk of chemicals and the official risk assessment numbers that are most commonly released to the press and public by government agencies.
The purpose of this primer is to provide policy makers, journalists, and leaders in all sections an understanding of how risk assessment is practiced and publicized. It is intended to enable the reader to sort through the numbers and scientific terminology to detect whether they are getting the whole story and to identify the strengths and weaknesses of a study. The ultimate goal is to improve public understanding and decision-making regarding environmental risks.
In this handbook, risk assessment refers to the process of estimating the type and magnitude of risk to human health posed by exposure to chemical substances. The handbook does not cover chemical risks to wildlife or other types of risk. But many of the principles of risk assessment described also apply to measuring other forms of risk.
This handbook distills the basics of risk assessment. It is designed to give the reader an overview of the process, what it can achieve, its limitations, and problems to watch for. It will not make the reader an expert on risk assessment, but it should provide an elementary knowledge of basic concepts and enable reporters to approach risk stories with more confidence.
The Communications Institute acknowledges the contributions of the Michigan Sea Grant Program which developed a special handbook for for journalists upon which this publication is based in part.
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