IHS Chemical Week


Risk Communication Comes Under Public Pressure

6:30 AM MDT | April 10, 2012 | By RAGNAR LOFSTEDT

By Ragnar Lofstedt, Professor and Director of the Kings Centre for Risk Management, Department of Geography King’s College London.

Environmental organisations have enthusiastically welcomed the European Commission’s recent publication on endocrine disruptors[1] released in February as it acknowledged the lack of relevant data on endocrine disrupting properties and defined criteria at EU level. It has also generated widespread coverage on the topic by media eager to revisit the destiny of Bisphenol A (BPA).    

Media often tend to amplify risks and attenuate benefits, raising public and stakeholder concerns with regard to chemical scares. As an example, the recent scientific study by CHEM Trust (Bishops Lydeard, U.K.), an environmental group, looking into the link between chemical exposure and the risk of obesity and diabetes, has concluded that there is evidence that man-made chemicals play a role in the development of both. The authors recommend, as a precautionary measure, to reduce public and workers exposure to these chemicals.  
Coverage of the study by media underlined its recommendation to limit exposure to chemicals based on the precautionary principle. Although it is highly doubtful that coverage on the CHEM Trust study will lead to a reduced use of the chemicals in question, it will inevitably increase public concern of man-made chemicals as a whole.
Media hype and ensuing public perceptions should not be key drivers to whether a chemical is taken off the market or not. In a recent article I wrote, ‘Risk versus Hazard-How to regulate in the 21st Century’ (Lofstedt 2011) I consider whether the regulation of chemicals should be based on an intrinsic ability to cause harm (risk) or the real probability that it will actually cause harm (hazard). Whilst favoring risk-based policy making, I acknowledge the difficulty of ‘selling’ it. The communication of hazard classifications is easier than risk assessments, due to fact that there is no need to discuss elements of scientific uncertainty. Rapid media attention can result in group campaigns putting pressure on regulators and decision-makers to react and as a result eroding public trust in the regulatory process.

I see four areas in which advocates of risk-based policy could improve their chance of success in promoting science-based policy:
  • By introducing the dual concept of ‘hazard’ and ‘risk’ and risk assessment as a process as part of the curriculum.
  • Through the development of reporting guidelines similar to those agreed by the BBC in 2003 (Harrabin 2003) to help journalists become more attuned to communication pitfalls. Science-media forums could encourage greater dialog between journalists and scientists on topics such as risk assessment.
  • By increasing the scientific competency of the European Parliament, through the establishment of an independent scientific advisory board to evaluate Commission’s proposals.
  • Though a proper interpretation of the Communication on the Precautionary Principle (2000), which states that any invocation of the precautionary principle must be preceded by a risk assessment.
Greater risk based policy making in Europe will require a review of media relations. Many broadsheet and broadcast media in European countries are reducing their scientific correspondents; as a result the need for media risk guidelines becomes ever more important to ensure no unwarranted amplifications of chemical scare.


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