"Risk" or "hazard"? Experts do not all distinguish between these two terms in the same way
Does it matter whether a substance constitutes a risk or a hazard? For the scientists who assess risks in the field of consumer health protection, this distinction is very important. By contrast, for the social stakeholders who use these assessments, it is of no relevance whatsoever. This is one of the results of two studies by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). The project "Evaluation of communication on the differences between "risk" and "hazard" examined BfR risk communication from the angle of how experts and lay persons use these terms in practice. In the project "Communication of risk and hazard" experts from industry, environmental associations, consumers associations and public authorities were asked about their use of these terms. The results of these two studies are now available. "The study results give us important findings for risk communication", says BfR President, Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. "Risk communication must be tailored more towards the target groups also when it comes to the language used."
The differing use of the terms “risk” and “hazard” could be one explanation for the misunderstandings that arise in risk communication between public authorities, industry, non-governmental organisations and the general public. This is the conclusion of the two studies which were carried out, on behalf of BfR, by Forschungszentrum Jülich GmbH and Institut für ökologische Wirtschaftsforschung gGmbH in cooperation with Dialogik gGmbH. The two studies focused on the evaluation of BfR risk communication and its ongoing development.
BfR scientists who assess risks in the field of consumer health protection distinguish between the two terms: “hazard” describes the harmfulness of a substance, e.g. whether it is toxic, irritating or corrosive. This can lead to a specific effect, for instance it may be carcinogenic or mutagenic. A “risk” only emerges when people come into contact with the hazardous substance. The type of contact (food, skin or respiratory tract) is important as is the amount of the substance involved. In scientific terms this is called exposure. Hence, from the toxicological angle risk is a combination of hazard and exposure.
The results of the studies show that the terms “risk” and “hazard” are used differently by the various scientific disciplines like the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities and each has its own clear definition.
Social stakeholders who use and pass on scientific risk assessments like industry, non-governmental organisations and lay persons do not normally make any such distinction. They use the terms as they see fit.
The evaluation of the survey of representatives of public authorities, industry and non-governmental organisations revealed that the main reasons for the differing use of the two terms are conceptual and strategic. In some cases the terms are intentionally used for the stakeholder’s own messages in order to classify a risk as low or major.
The studies provide insight into the arguments used by the main interest groups and how their risk communication is structured. The results of the surveys provide important indications on how the various stakeholders are involved in the risk communication process and how communication could be improved in future.
Based on the results of the surveys it can be said that within expert panels the terms “hazard” and “risk” are exactly defined. For the public at large risk assessments should always be presented in a clear manner beyond the complexities of these terms and communicated in a dialogue with a feedback option. As, according to these studies, the distinction between the terms “hazard” and “risk” does not seem to be overly important for experts from industry, non-governmental organisations and lay persons, this should be taken into account in general in risk communication.
The studies have been published as Volume 01/2010 (in german) and Volume 02/2010 in the BfR-Wissenschaft series and are available from the BfR Press Office: firstname.lastname@example.org, Fax 030-18412-4970. They can also be downloaded free of charge from the website www.bfr.bund.de.