August 4, 2023 / Abby Roberts

Communicating the Difference Between Hazard and Risk

On July 14, 2023, when the International Agency for Research on Cancer announced that it had classified the artificial sweetener aspartame as a “Group 2B” carcinogen, the news sent ripples through international media. IARC’s news release made clear that Group 2B denotes possibly carcinogenic substances based on limited evidence in humans and lab animals and noted that the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives hadn’t lowered the acceptable daily intake for the substance. However, many headlines published by news organizations didn’t communicate this nuance. The public received an impression that the risk of cancer from consuming aspartame in soft drinks and food products was more significant than it was.

This was an especially high-profile instance in which the presence of a potentially hazardous substance was conflated with the risk of adverse health effects, but Lisa Yang, CPPS, a health scientist with Stantec ChemRisk, has noticed this tendency throughout her career. “On social media or the news outlets, we hear about the dangers of consumer products or the dangers of things around us in our day-to-day [lives],” she said, “and while it is scary, there is another layer of complexity or knowledge that is missing.”

Hazard vs. Risk, AKA. Shark vs. Shark Attack

“Basically, a hazard is just the potential for harm,” said Lindsey Garnick, CPPS, formerly with Stantec ChemRisk. However, “a risk is different because it considers the likelihood and the severity of the harm,” she explained. Take the example of a shark attack: “If you [are not swimming in] the ocean, then you’re not at risk of a shark attack. But if you’re a surfer and you’re surfing every single day, then you’re at higher risk,” said Garnick.

This distinction can sometimes be misinterpreted when information about risk and hazards is communicated to manufacturers, consumers, regulators, or the public at large. Andrey Massarsky, PhD, also with Stantec ChemRisk, agreed with Yang’s observation on people’s tendency to confuse the two. “What you hear in the media is more emphasis on the hazard side of things, and you rarely hear any risk side of things,” he said, and added that his work with Stantec ChemRisk had made him more aware of the risk component himself.

It’s critical to assess both the hazard and risk components of consumer products. “Hazard evaluation is definitely important because that’s how you understand whether or not a chemical has a potential for toxicity,” Massarsky said. He added that this is especially the case during consumer product development to avoid putting any chemicals that may have a known hazard in products. Sometimes, however, using a hazardous substance is unavoidable, or a hazard may be discovered at a point when consumers or workers have already been exposed. Product stewards and risk assessors can perform risk assessments to determine the likelihood of harm and aid in risk management decisions. It is important to remember that “the mere presence of a hazardous chemical in a product does not mean that you will have a risk by using that product,” said Massarsky. The fundamental principle of toxicology is that the dose makes the poison. That is, every chemical is toxic at a certain dose.

Returning to Garnick’s comparison, if you don’t swim in the ocean, you certainly will not be attacked by a shark. However, the Florida Museum calculates that your risk of dying from a shark attack is one in 4,332,817; you would likely consider this an acceptable level of risk compared to the risk of death from drowning (one in 1,134), a car accident (one in 84), or cancer (one in seven). (“Sharks are very misunderstood,” Garnick said.) The Florida Museum also shares tips to help you reduce your risk of being attacked by a shark even further. In a similar way, some hazards may present very little risk to workers or consumers, or risk may be mitigated to acceptable levels.

Adopting the perspective of a consumer, Yang acknowledged that it’s scary to learn in the media about hazardous chemicals in products. “But what’s making it scary?” she asked. “Am I, as a regular consumer, going to be exposed [to the hazard] at a level where I would be at risk of developing some sort of ailment? Or is [the risk] more focused towards occupational hazards? Why is something considered scary, and what is the potential for me to be at risk?”

Risk and Product Stewardship

Stantec ChemRisk is a human health and environmental risk assessment consulting firm that frequently works with clients to assess and communicate risks associated with consumer products throughout their life cycles. “The ultimate goal is really to make sure that whatever is produced does not cause any harm,” said Yang, “and we want to make sure we catch it early on, as early as possible. And if not, then what needs to be done? We want to help our clients do right to their consumers and do their science well.”

Clients reach out to Stantec ChemRisk to address concerns with their products. Garnick discussed one such case involving an ingredient that had recently been determined to be hazardous. “It was classified as a liver toxicant based on pretty high dose oral rat studies,” she said, “but this product is used in a dermal application at very, very low doses, and so there wasn’t a risk for liver effects.” Yang and Massarsky likewise noted that route of exposure—the means through which a substance enters the human body—is one critical risk-related factor often overlooked in health hazard communication.

When clients raise questions about whether they can use certain chemicals in their products, Stantec ChemRisk professionals can assist them by conducting a risk assessment, which entails a hazard assessment, exposure assessment, and a risk characterization. The chemical’s toxicity profile is evaluated to identify any potential known hazards, estimated dose is calculated based on predicted use scenarios, and the potential exposure is screened against available regulatory limits or health-based guidance values provided by governmental agencies or authoritative bodies. For chemicals lacking available health information, Massarsky explained that Stantec ChemRisk professionals can use modeling programs to predict these parameters.

He also noted that some consumer products are regulated by federal and state government agencies. For example, the Food and Drug Administration regulates food products, while EPA regulates pesticides. Thus, conducting a full risk assessment, which includes hazard evaluation, could be helpful in ensuring compliance with regulatory agencies. Having hazard and risk data available as part of product stewardship efforts will help companies demonstrate compliance and goodwill.

Yang agreed that risk assessment helps regulatory compliance. In addition to route of exposure, she also listed the identity of the chemical, the dose of exposure, and the people exposed as some of the factors to consider when deciding whether to use a chemical. “If we’re assuming normal usage of a product, then what would the exposure be?” she asked. “What would be the potential risk?”

“And at the end of the day,” Yang said, “we want to make sure that products are safe for consumers as well as workers that have to handle these products. Or that certain processes are put in place to ensure safety [for] anybody who handled the product throughout the product’s life cycle and end of life.”

At PSX 2023, Lisa Yang, CPPS, Lindsey Garnick, CPPS, and Andrey Massarsky, PhD, will host Session J2, “Understanding Hazard Versus Risk Nuances of Consumer Products” on Wednesday, October 18, 2023, from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m., Eastern time. PSX 2023 will be held October 17–19 at Westin Boston Seaport District in Boston. To view the program or to register, visit the conference website.

Abby Roberts

Abby Roberts is an editorial assistant at The Synergist and The SynergistNOW at AIHA


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