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Risk Assessment 101

“Don’t Eat Another Blueberry Until You See THIS!” or “Paint Thinner Found in Breakfast Cereal – Ditch the Bran Flakes!” – We all have that distant relative on social media who shares articles like these.  Most people usually scroll past this obvious click-bait, but have you ever wondered how scientists decide how these potential hazards can affect our health? The answer is – RISK ASSESSMENT!

Whether it is blueberries, bran flakes, contaminants in flood waters, accidental chemical spills, gaseous releases, fumes exposures, mixtures of contaminants, molds, endotoxins, infectious disease outbreaks or others, the evaluation process is the same. Understanding the proper methodology and the credible scientists who follow these valid procedures will make you a discriminating consumer of technical information. This is especially important given today’s ever increasing hazards, either natural or anthropogenic (man-made), and the response expected in today’s information age.

Risk assessment is a four-step process used by scientists, physicians and public health officials to estimate the increased risk of adverse health effects as a result of exposure to environmental health hazards.

Hazard Identification – This is the process of determining what hazard(s) exist and what health problems it or they could cause.

Questions to ask: What is it? Has there been a recent flood or other water intrusion event? What are its chemical properties? What are its toxicological effects? Are the effects synergistic?

Hazard-Dose Response – This examines the relationship between the dose of the hazard absorbed and the corresponding increase of adverse health effects. This can differ greatly between environmental contaminants. A basic principle of toxicology is the idea that “the dose makes the poison,” meaning that anything has the potential to be poisonous and even fatal in a high enough concentration. For example, it can take only 70 micrograms of botulinum toxin to have fatal effects on an average sized person, but gallons of seemingly harmless water in a very short time period can have the same lethal effect due to hyponatremia. Therefore, to assert that botulinum toxin is harmful while water is safe is scientifically misleading. Assessing how much of the hazard causes an adverse health effect or hazard dose response is a vital part of a risk assessment.

Questions to ask: How much of this will hurt you? How much of the hazard at a harmful level is in the area?

Exposure Assessment – It is critical to assess how much of the hazard the population has been exposed to over a certain period of time.  Just as importantly, scientists also study the route by which the hazard was absorbed, such as through ingestion (eating or drinking), inhalation (breathing) or dermal (skin). This can be directly measured when possible, but is often times estimated using scientific sampling methods.

Questions to ask: Where are the hazards (qualitative and source identification)? How much (quantitative) of the hazard were you exposed to? For how long?  How often? At what concentration? How were you exposed to this hazard?

Risk Characterization – The final step of the evaluation describes the probability and magnitude of health risk to the exposed population. This allows scientists, health care providers, and public health professionals to estimate the increased risk of adverse health effects as a result of the hazard(s). Risk characterization assists professionals with crafting health based guidance to address the hazards.

Questions to ask: Based on the amount absorbed, ingested, inhaled and the properties of the hazard, what effects may happen and the risk of such effects? What steps should be in place to mitigate future exposures? Should families, employees or occupants evacuate? How much remediation is necessary to reduce the health risk? What periodic surveillance should be in place to monitor releases or continued acceptable/healthy environment?

For more information on health risk assessments or if you have a potential hazard in your building, location, facility or community and would like us to conduct a risk assessment, please contact us at