What is risk management?

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In the analysis of chemical and other risks there is a need to separate risk assessment from decision-making. Therefore we talk of the more or less scientific risk assessment, and the political or administrative risk management. This is because it was felt the risk assessors must be able to work independently, free of possible political, economic and other types of interference, and only try to determine the actual risks. So the risk assessor, in theory, does not pay attention to the possible political or economic consequences of the assessed risk. The risk assessor should thus be immune to political interference or economic lobbying by industry or trade.

Complicated aims

When the risk assessment is completed, the decision maker will take into consideration the results of risk assessment as well as possible alternatives (e.g. whether or not there exists an alternative drug on the market that might have less adverse effects), costs (is the alternative drug ten times more expensive but only marginally better than the older compounds), technical means to minimise exposure (e.g. filtering of fine particles of diesel exhaust gases), and the purpose of use (much more serious side effects will be tolerated for a cancer drug than for a pill for headache or for a food colouring).

Tools for risk management

Risk managers use quite different tools in different cases. Some chemicals have to be registered before they are allowed onto the market; e.g. drugs and pesticides. In other cases, limit values are used; for air pollutants guideline values are used, for natural or man-made foreign chemicals in food, tolerable daily intake (TDI) values are established. Some chemicals may be banned altogether; the so-called Stockholm convention bans several organochlorine compounds including PCB compounds. Authorities may also provide recommendations for the safe use of chemicals or recommendations for consuming food contaminated with chemicals; examples are recommendations on restricting the consumption of fish highly contaminated by methyl mercury or dioxins.

Different principles in different sectors

One of the problems in risk management has been that different sectors apply different principles and accept different risk levels. This is not very meaningful for the safety of the society as a whole. For instance, there are often differences between the decisions of environmental authorities and health authorities. Typical examples are dioxins present in contaminated soil and the risks of composting biological waste. Environmental authorities often tend to view the risks of dioxins in soil as severe, compared to the health authorities who ask if there is a real possibility for exposure. On the other hand, health authorities tend to oppose the environmental authorities who are enthusiastic about composting waste and who often tend to neglect the microbiological and bioaerosol risks involved. In dioxin issues concerning fish, there have also been differences between the health authorities and food safety authorities, because health authorities also take into account the nutritional benefits of eating fish. Often mutual discussions have helped to understand the attitudes of the opposing camp.

Controlling before or after

In most areas, the present legislation in industrialised countries covers the safety issues rather adequately, and chemicals are well controlled. Continuous discussion is needed nevertheless to ponder which chemicals are so risky that pre-market acceptance or notification would be necessary. In Europe, the REACH-legislation has changed the situation completely, because all chemicals manufactured or imported in quantities in excess of 1 tonne per year must be registered, and depending on the quantities, different degrees of proof are required about their safety for the intended use.

In some areas it has been considered reasonable that the manufacturers know the products and maintain a watchful eye on their products. A typical example is cosmetics. Many cosmetic products are not manufactured in very large quantities, but because they are applied directly onto human beings, the possibility of exposure is very real in contrast with many industrial chemicals. Many household products share a similar possibility of exposure, e.g. cleaning materials, floor or automobile waxes and polishes etc. Therefore it might be more crucial to monitor these materials than distant industrial chemicals.

According to poison control centre information, the most common causes of poisonings and questions of chemicals intake by children deal with drugs, alcohol, detergents, cosmetics, petroleum products and solvents.

After risk assessment, considered as a scientific process, the authorities or politicians make their decision. This step is called risk management, and in risk management many factors in addition to the risks are also considered, such as possible alternatives, economic impact and indirect consequences.

One level up: Here a risk, there a risk, everywhere risks, risks!

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