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Lab 11 – How Risky Is It?


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The objectives of this lab activity are to:


· Understand the difference between hazard and risk

· Discover why one’s own risk perception may be different from another individual’s perception of risk

· Rank health, safety, and environmental problems in terms of risk and explain the reasoning for the rankings


Virtually every activity we participate in involves some risk….from the moment we apply antiperspirant in the morning to drinking that morning coffee (may contain numerous natural and man-made carcinogens) to driving (air pollution from automobile emissions, talking on a cell phone while driving) to work. We read the labels in the grocery stores, scanning for fat content or various preservatives. We regulate our coffee intake and the speed we drive. There are many types of health hazards or risks that we unconsciously weigh every day. We come into contact with many substances, many unknowingly. Some may have the potential to cause adverse health effects, but how do we know if we are at risk of becoming ill from exposure to these substances? Will I get cancer? What’s my risk from pesticides? Is my health in danger from chemicals?


Practically speaking, these are all relevant questions but the most important thing to consider is that it is not the toxicity (the degree to which a substance is poisonous) of a substance but the hazard associated with its use that causes the potential risk. Therefore, we can define hazard as any event or circumstance that threatens or jeopardizes the health or safety of an individual or groups of individuals, such as exposure (the potential for a person to come in contact with a contaminant) to chemicals.


The four types of hazards are described as follows:


· Cultural hazards are societal problems such as drug use, alcohol consumption, unsafe sex, poor diet, poverty, and working conditions.

· Chemical hazards are environmental exposures from air, water, soil or food and may include both naturally occurring and man-made chemicals.

· Physical hazards include earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fire, and radiation.

· Biological hazards include disease-causing organisms (e.g., bacteria, viruses or parasites), allergens, and poisonous plants and animals (e.g., spiders, bees, or snakes).


Risk then can be defined as the probability or chance of harm occurring to cause injury, disease, environmental, social, or financial damage.


Risk = (probability of event occurring) x (impact of event occurring)


For example, if we say that your risk of being hit by a car is 1 in 10,000, that is the same as saying that the probability that you will be hit by a car is 1 in 10,000 (which can also be expressed as 0.01% or 0.0001).


Not all risks have the same consequences and are not likely to occur at the same rate. Although the term “risk” is generally associated with negative outcomes, that is not always the case. An example of a risk with a possible positive or negative outcome is the risk you take when buying a lottery ticket. With a very small initial investment, you risk a gain or loss.


What constitutes an acceptable risk is a matter of judgment by an individual or a society. Some questions that should be asked when determining acceptable risk include the following:

· What are the benefits gained from use of the substance?

· Are there alternatives available?

· Will there be an economic impact?

· Will environmental quality be affected?

· Will use/exposure affect the public?

· Are there employment considerations?

· Will use/exposure affect natural resources?

· How will it affect public opinions?

· Are there any social impacts to be considered?



Risk perception is the subjective judgment that people make about the characteristics and severity or likelihood of risk. It examines attitudes toward risk, the levels of acceptable risk, and the behavior in response to their perception of risk. Risks of varying types are often perceived differently by individuals or groups of people. This difference in risk perception is based on education, ethnic background, familiarity, past experience, personal values, emotionalism, personal bias, religion, and many other socioeconomic factors. Much of our perception or misperception about risk is shaped by media distortions or misconceptions.


Information revealed from psychological experiments suggests that individuals have a difficult time determining the relative risks in many activities. We also often have a hard time ranking the frequency of many causes of death, because some exposures, such as floods and motor vehicle accidents are catastrophic and highly publicized, while other causes such as obesity and diabetes are chronic and are not as dramatic in causing death. In addition, the public (lay people) focuses on qualitative (opinioned observations) risk characteristics, whereas experts evaluate risk using scientifically derived estimates of the risk severity and likelihood of injury or death. Studies have shown that lay people tend to view chemicals as harmful or safe regardless of the dose or exposure. On the other hand, experts are more likely to take into account the dose and exposure to a chemical when evaluating risk.


Several authors have identified behavioral factors that may affect the perceptions that people have about risks. Some of these factors are described in the table on the following page. An individual can minimize the impact of a potential risk by modifying one’s exposure, modifying the effects of the exposure and/or plan for compensating effects (health and life insurance, law suits, legal settlements). For instance, the chances of dying in an automobile accident in 1953 was four times greater than in 2003, based on fatalities per mile driven in the United States. Some of this difference can be attributed to better roads, improvement in medical care and tougher drunk- driving laws. At the same time, there was considerable improvement in vehicle safety features (e.g., power brakes, antilock brakes, radial tires, lap and shoulder safety belts, and dual air bags) over the 50-year period

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