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Author: Jensen Morgan

This lesson discusses assessing risk from environmental issues.

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Hi, I'm Jensen Morgan. We're going to talk about some great concepts in environmental science. Today's topic is risk. So let's get started. We're going to talk about environmental risk and how it is addressed in policy, challenges with addressing risk, the difference between voluntary and involuntary types of risk, and ways environmental risk is managed.

Almost all environmental policy is essentially the assessment of risk from human activities on ecological and human health. There is a lot of uncertainty in assessing health risks from environmental issues in order to develop policies, because lab tests cannot adequately represent real world conditions in the following ways. They cannot accurately guess at how much exposure an individual or population will eventually be exposed to, or who will be exposed. They cannot predict what pathway a human or organism will interact with or ingest the potential danger. They cannot know the duration of time a subject or population will be exposed, nor can they guess at the sensitivity an individual has for certain dangers, because certain individuals have different susceptibilities. It is hard to infer from testing animals how humans will respond or infer how high doses will affect people by experimenting with low doses. In general there is a lack of data to determine health effects from environmental issues.

We are going to talk about some challenges to assessing and mitigating risk. Threshold is an important concept in assessing risk. Most contaminants have a threshold or the point when the level of contamination changes from being safe to being harmful. It can be difficult to determine what a contaminant's threshold is because below a certain level, there might not be any negative impacts. It is common for human health risks to be misunderstood because it is hard to comprehend the risk of 1 in 20,000 because there are few activities that humans do 20,000 times. People often treat a risk of 1 in 20,000 with the same level of caution of a risk of 1 in a million because of such misunderstandings, despite the fact that the two are very different.

Risks can be either voluntary or involuntary. They are voluntary when risks to an individual are incurred because she or he has performed an action that causes said risk, while involuntary risks or when an individual incurs risk as a result of someone else's actions. It is possible for individuals to control voluntary risk by changing their behavior. But in general, people are more interested in addressing involuntary risks. Governments tend to regulate involuntary risks, leaving behavioral changes up to the individual.

Humans decide whether or not to take on the risk of potential harm from an activity or substance depending on potential benefits gained and the individual's temperament. Science can only aid in explaining causes and impacts from environmental issues, but it is up to humans to decide what amounts and types of risk they are willing to accept.

The US Food and Drug Administration sets standards for acceptable levels of contaminants such as pesticides that can be present on or in foods. However, it is difficult to establish appropriate amounts of risk because it is challenging for people to understand and/or predict risk probabilities. Also, perceptions of risk may not match true probabilities of harm, and willingness to accept risk depends on the activity.

Now let's have a recap. Today we talked about risk and environmental policy associated with it, voluntary and involuntary types of risk, as well as organizations like the US FDA which manage risk on a national level.

Well, that's all for this tutorial. I look forward to next time. Bye.