Science, Risk, and Risk Assessment and Their Role(s) Supporting Environmental Risk Management

By Hetes, Robert G. | Environmental Law, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Science, Risk, and Risk Assessment and Their Role(s) Supporting Environmental Risk Management


Hetes, Robert G., Environmental Law


 I. QUALITY DECISIONS NEEDED TO MEET EPA's MISSION OF ENVIRONMENTAL
    PROTECTION
II. ROLE OF SCIENCE
III. RISK ASSESSMENT AS A KEY SOURCE OF SCIENTIFIC INFORMATION
     A. What is Risk?
     B. What is Environmental Risk?
     C. The Need for Risk Assessment
     D. How to Make Risk Assessment Tractable and Feasible?
     E. Judgment, Normative Values, and Policy Choices are Unavoidable
     F. Statutory Influences in Risk Assessment
     G. Limits of Risk Assessment
 IV. ENSURING QUALITY SCIENCE TO SUPPORT EPA DECISIONS
     A. Action Development Process (ADP)
     B. General Assessment Factors
     C. Peer Review
  V. HOW CAN IT GO WRONG?
 VI. WHAT CAN THE EPA Do TO MAINTAIN AND IMPROVE THE ROLE OF SCIENCE?

I. QUALITY DECISIONS NEEDED TO MEET EPA'S MISSION OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION

The mission of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is to protect human health and to safeguard the natural environment--air, water, and land--upon which life depends. EPA fulfills this mission by, among other things, developing and enforcing regulations that implement environmental laws enacted by Congress. Inferred is the fact that successful environmental problem-solving must encompass not only "what must be done" (setting a standard or risk management objective), but equally "how it shall be accomplished" (implementation and enforcement). Determining environmental standards, policies, guidelines, regulations, and actions requires making decisions considering this full spectrum. The quality of any decision and resulting action "determines how well environmental programs actually work and the extent to which they achieve health and environmental goals." (1) There are numerous factors which impact the quality and success of any decision or action, and many of these are competing or contradictory forces, such as:

Legally defensible       Clear and concise
Comprehensive            Simple
Flexible                 Easy to implement
Sound analysis           Timely and inexpensive

The quality and acceptability of any decision is one that effectively balances these factors.

As described in Risk Assessment Principles and Practices.

   Determining environmental standards, policies, guidelines,
   regulations, and actions requires making decisions which are often
   contentious. Setting an environmental standard that is too lax may
   threaten public health or the environment, while a standard that
   is unnecessarily stringent may impose a significant marginal
   economic cost for small marginal gain. Environmental decisions
   are often time-sensitive, for example when public health is
   known or suspected to be at risk. The decisions must frequently
   be made with incomplete or imperfect information and many times
   under the additional pressure of heightened public scrutiny and
   concern. And, once made, the decisions are often challenged in
   court and subject to high levels of public and scientific
   scrutiny. (2)

As a result, such contentious decisions must be based on the current state of knowledge certainty is not required, and appropriate means must be used. Rational support for answers to key questions and an estimate of confidence in the decision must be provided.

There are often conflicting interests bearing on environmental decisions, and as a result, it is well recognized that it is important (and in some cases even mandated) to consider a broad range of factors when making decisions about risk management including:

* Risk--nature, magnitude, severity, and likelihood of adverse outcomes/effects

* Economic factors--costs and benefits of risks and risk mitigation alternatives

* Laws and legal decisions--framework that prohibits or requires some actions

* Social factors--attributes of individuals or populations that may affect their susceptibility to risks from a particular stressor

* Technological factors--feasibility, impact, and range of risk management options

II.

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Science, Risk, and Risk Assessment and Their Role(s) Supporting Environmental Risk Management
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