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Concepts and Evaluation of Methods

The process of assessing risks is now an essential component of an effective strategy for countering the general hankering after a zero risk society, incorporating the management of health of safety in the decision-making process and rationalising the amount of resources that should be allocated for preventing or reducing risks. More importantly it is being increasingly recognised that used judiciously, it can be a powerful tool for re-assuring the public that science is being used for pursuing technologies whose benefits outweigh the risks and integrating public values in the decision making and political process. Assessing risks is simple in principle. It involves identifying hazards or examining what in a particular situation could cause harm or damage, and then assessing the likelihood that harm will actually be experienced by a specified population and what the consequences would be (ie the risks). As such, a risk assessment is essentially a tool for extrapolating from available data, a value or judgement which people will accept as an estimate of the risk attached to a particular activity or event. Though a sharp distinction is often made between risk assessment and risk management – the distinction is artificial. It stems from original beliefs – now known to be misguided – that assessing risks could be, by and large, a totally scientific and objective process unlike risk management which inevitably has to be more subjective because it has to take into account a host of other factors such as economic analysis, perception of risks, availability of alternative technologies, concerns about equity etc. In practice, an assessment of risks is also a very subjective process since it often cannot be undertaken without making a number of assumptions. Moreover, since a risk assessment takes account of measures already in place it invariably contains some elements of risk management. In short though the basic principles of assessing risks may be simple, applying them is not as simple. Indeed risk assessment nowadays more often than not is a composite of established disciplines, including toxicology, engineering, statistics, economics, demography and psychology. Knowledge of these disciplines is required to solve many of the practical problems – described below – that are encountered during the assessment process.