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2 Tutorials that teach Risk
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Author: Sophia Tutorial

Categorize environmental hazards as voluntary or involuntary risks.

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what's covered
This tutorial will cover the topic of environmental risk. We will explore assessing risk from environmental issues and discuss how it is addressed in policy. We will explore challenges with addressing risk, and the difference between voluntary and involuntary types of risk. Lastly, we will discuss ways environmental risk is managed, such as the standards set by the Food and Drug Administration.

Our discussion breaks down as follows:

  1. Environmental Policy and Its Challenges
  2. The Concept of Threshold
  3. (In)Voluntary Risks
  4. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

1. Environmental Policy and Its Challenges

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.

This is 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.
  • They cannot guess at the sensitivity an individual has for certain dangers because certain individuals have different susceptibilities.
  • It is difficult to infer from testing animals how humans will respond.
  • It is difficult to 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.

2. The Concept of Threshold

When discussing challenges to assessing and mitigating risk, it is important to know the concept of threshold. 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.

think about it
It is common for human health risks to be misunderstood because it is hard to comprehend the risk of 1 in 20,000, as there are few activities that humans do 20,000 times. Would you treat a risk of 1 in 20,000 with the same level of caution as a risk of 1 in a million? Because of such misunderstandings, people do, despite the fact that the two types of risks are very different.

3. (In)Voluntary Risks

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 occur 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.

big idea
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.

4. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

The U.S. 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.


Today we learned about risk and environmental policy associated with it. We learned about the challenges to assessing and mitigating risk, including the concept of threshold. We learned about voluntary and involuntary types of risk, as well as organizations like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which manage risk on a national level.

Source: Adapted from Sophia instructor Jensen Morgan, FDA PD HTTP://BIT.LY/1EIRBNW