March/April 1995 Issue #32


Risk assessment's hidden assumptions and unanticipated consequences must be carefully examined before the technique is utilized by policy makers. Here is a catalogue of some of these assumptions and their consequences:


Risk assessment may often be limited by the uncertainties of assumptions built into risk models or the lack of predictability of the systems studied. Nevertheless, policy makers still require the best available rational and objective methods of measuring and comparing risks. This is especially true in societies where there is a scarcity of resources for improving public health and environmental conditions. Decision makers in such societies must clearly identify environmental and health programs which produce the most benefit for the most people for the money spent. Since public perception and cultural practices can be completely divorced from any apparent objective calculation of risk, science may make its vital contribution by assessing risk.

A classic example of the clash of science and public perception occurs in the arena of comparative risks. Homicide, drug abuse, auto accidents, and suicide create enormous anxiety among the public. However, in the United States, all of these problems together cause fewer deaths yearly than does cigarette smoking. The daily world death toll from smoking is an estimated 8,200. In theory, the cost of eliminating Rational Risk Assessment, con't from p. 9 this risk is minimal as the problem is 100 percent preventable. But cigarette smoking has been, to a large degree, a culturally accepted risk.

Consequently, among European environ-mentalists there is relatively little attention directed toward eliminating the risks associated with smoking, while comparatively enormous time, energy and resources are invested in health issues associated with landfill pollution, high voltage electrical transmission lines, and food additives. In a world where environmental organization fund raising is partly dependent upon maintaining a high level of public concern about environmental health and safety, dispassionate analysis of risk and the comparison of risks is an essential, though potentially unpopular, ingredient of good policy making.


Risk assessment procedures can introduce a degree of rationality and quantitative precision into an otherwise murky debate about the relative toxicities of various substances or about the costs and benefits of modern technologies. However, risk assessment, like western law, should not be viewed as a process which can be imported in wholesale fashion and utilized unaltered in the emerging democracies of the Former Soviet Union, Central and Eastern Europe, and the Baltics.

Risk assessment, for all of its scientific pretensions of objectivity, is still essentially a political process. It functions as part of a political process and its results reflect power relationships as much as "objective truth". Risk assessment works only where there is meaningful public participation in environmental decision making and where there are effective checks and balances placed upon scientific claims to the truth. Otherwise "risk assessment " can be used as a tool of technocratic rule: rule by a technically trained elite who are not responsible to the public, and not controlled by democratic processes such as checks and balances or elections.

There is an enormous temptation to escape from the time consuming and often tedious debates of democratic decision making and flee into the arms of technocracy. Recently ECOLOGIA hosted a group of visitors from the Former Soviet Union. After a two day workshop on an environmental decision making model for selecting clean up technologies, one of the participants noted that as a public official he would welcome such a "scientific approach" as it it would free him from making the final decision and insulate him from the complaints of the public and industry. He was disappointed to be reminded that the decision making model only presented options and their consequences. Policy makers still had the responsibility of choosing among the options.

Science is a neutral forum for determining facts, evaluating and comparing some of the consequences of specific decisions. To the degree that risk assessment can contribute rationality to the decision making process, it can be an important tool. It is not however the entire solution.

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