Are Societal Judgements Being Incorporated Into Expert Opinions Produced by Toxicologists? H. Paul A. Illing, MRC Inst. for Environment and Health, 94 Regent Rd., Leicester LE1 7DD, UK, telephone (44)116 223 1603, fax (44)116 223 1601, e-mail email@example.com
In human health risk assessments, risk assessment consists of risk estimation and risk evaluation.1 The risk estimation for standard setting consists of hazard identification, dose response assessment (or hazard characterisation), and risk characterisation.2 Risk evaluation ('the complex process of determining the significance of the identified hazards and estimated risks to those concerned with or affected by the decision')1 involves societal judgements. In the second Royal Society report,3 the social scientists' view is that assessments of risk are derived from social and institutional assumptions and processes, i.e. risk is socially constructed. This implies that there may be variations in the maximum incidences for different levels of ill-health effect perceived as 'broadly acceptable'.
Except when dealing with cancers and occupational asthmas ('stochastic effects'), expert toxicological judgement, based on selecting a suitable 'no observable adverse effect level' (or variants thereof) and uncertainty factors, is used to obtain the maximum 'safe' level of exposure ('broadly acceptable' risk). Uncertainty factors include an element to ensure that the proposed standard is severe enough to avoid public criticism. The uncertainty factors generally used for occupational exposure standard setting in the UK are smaller than those for food or environmental exposure.4 They may be influenced by the exposure situation and the degree of control achievable.4 These are attributes associated with risk perception.3
Underlying cultural attitudes, morbidity, mortality and agronomic practices will affect the perception of what constitutes 'broadly acceptable' levels of risk. If the western European/North American choice of risk criteria/uncertainty factors adopted in International standards for exposures to chemicals (including food chemicals, pesticides and veterinary medicines) include allowances for information on background risk levels and on how risks are perceived, it will need re-evaluation when applied to other cultures and agronomic situations.
Opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
1Royal Society Study Group (1983) Risk Assessment. London: Royal Society
2National Academy of Sciences (1983) Risk Assessment in the Federal Government. Washington: National Academy Press.
3Royal Society Study Group (1992) Risk: Analysis, perception and management. London: Royal Society
4Fairhurst, S. (1995) Ann. Occup. Hyg. 39, 375-386
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