Science Wednesday: Risk Assessment In Every Day Life

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Whenever someone in my office says, “You’d be the perfect person for…,” my first thought is always this can’t be good. But when the “perfect” assignment was an invitation to teach 7th and 8th grade scientists attending the Summer Educational Development Program about what my colleagues and I do at EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment (NCEA), I immediately agreed.

My next thought, however, was “how do I make Human Health Risk Assessment , interesting to 12- and 13 year-olds?” Yikes!

I decided to start the conversation about risks the students might face in every day life. Things like traffic and playing sports on hard asphalt. Or sharks. We went from there to discuss how one might reduce these every day risks, or “risk management” in the form of using crosswalks or the help of crossing guards.

We then talked about how we at EPA use the NAS Risk Assessment paradigm (hazard identification, dose-response analysis, and exposure assessment) to determine chemical risk. I used the shark example to explain the need to consider both “hazard” and “exposure” in risk assessment. While a hungry shark may be a hazard, we all agreed that there’s not much an exposure risk to us in the classroom. (Well at least we hoped not!).

With no sharks to worry about, I moved the discussion to something we here at EPA are more concerned about: lead. In the context of the four-step risk assessment paradigm, we explored the human health risk assessment of lead to describe determining hazards and risk levels that would result from various exposures.

To end, we talked about how genetics might make one population more susceptible to exposure risk than another population. Using a simple experiment on taste, everyone determined if they were a genetic ‘Taster’ or ‘Non-Taster.’ We talked about how if being a ‘Taster’ was a risk, and only three people in the class can ‘Taste,’ than identifying their presence would impact a risk assessment. This helped the students grasp the importance of understanding susceptible populations in risk assessment, and how smaller subpopulations may be impacted by risks not generally seen in the bigger population.

The energy and enthusiasm that the class brought to the discussion, and their quick understanding of the importance of risk assessment made me all the more energized about what I do every day. I am looking forward to my next perfect assignment.

About the author: Dr. Maureen Gwinn is a toxicologist with the National Center for Environmental Assessment in the Effects Identification and Characterization Group where she works in Human Health Risk Assessment. Dr. Gwinn enjoys doing toxicology outreach with students through the Society of Toxicology’s Education Committee.

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EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

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Science Wednesday: What do you for a living? SCIENCE!

Go to EPA's Science Month pageAbout the author: Jeffery Robichaud is a second generation scientist with EPA who started in 1998. He serves as Chief of the Environmental Assessment and Monitoring Branch in Kansas City.

I struggle with chit-chat at social gatherings when the inevitable, “What do you do?” question is asked. It is easy to say I work for the EPA. But if the party-goer probes further, my answer is usually, “Well I work with a group of scientists and engineers who do lots and lots of different complicated sciency things in the laboratory and in the field to protect public health and the environment.” Usually at this point they ignore me and turn to my wife, the professional photographer, in an effort to avoid being blinded with science.

Joking aside, science is at the very core of everything we do as an Agency. In a Regional office, most of the Science we perform is Applied Science…taking all of the data and conclusions of basic science research, national studies, and Agency policies and translating them into decisions that affect the public and the environment in a very real way, often in their own backyards. Here in Kansas City, I’m lucky to have a team of professionals that has received numerous top national awards and recognition in an ill-understood but extremely important scientific field, risk assessment. In fact, when I searched Greenversations it wasn’t even mentioned.

Risk Assessment is a scientific process used to characterize the nature and magnitude of health risks to humans, fish and wildlife from exposures to chemical contaminants and other stressors. It brings together many scientific disciplines including chemistry, biology, toxicology, geology, statistics and ecology, all with the goal of providing the scientific support behind the Agency’s decisions. Risk Assessment is the science behind the establishment of fish advisories, cleanup levels at hazardous waste sites, evaluating health risks associated with toxic air pollutants, and registration of pesticides.

Beyond the obvious ability to affect decisions regarding human health and the environment, those of us involved with risk assessment enjoy the discipline since it is constantly evolving. Updated information on the toxicity of chemicals continually emerges, new exposure pathways come to the forefront such as vapor intrusion and exciting activities are always around the corner such as the field as computational toxicology. It is both challenging and rewarding to ensure that the best science is brought to bear as we meet tough challenges in the coming years. We’ll be hard at work performing the science behind the scenes; however don’t be afraid to talk to one of us at a cocktail party. Scientists are people too.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.