Risk Comparisons

The sheer complexity and uncertainty inherent in risk assessment provides a significant barrier to public understanding and appreciation of the magnitude of risks. One method of explaining risk information is to make comparisons to other risks. Some feel that comparing and contrasting risks with similar assessments of commonplace situations help the consumer better understand risks (7), because comparisons are more meaningful to the public than unfamiliar magnitudes (probabilities) associated with risks. Examples of such an approach include comparing the risks of cigarette smoking with the risks of motor vehicle accidents, home accidents, background radiation levels, or hang gliding.

Although risk comparisons can be helpful in communicating the magnitude of risks, they are not by themselves adequate determinants of decisions. Despite the appeal of using risk comparisons to put results of risk assessments in perspective, such risk comparison practices have been subject to criticism, because they ignore critical elements concerning public values and acceptability of different types of risks. Moreover, some comparisons involving different types of risk often ignore different levels of uncertainty inherent in the risk estimates.

With regard to chemical hazards, Ames et al. (8) and Gold et al. (9) ranked the potential human carcinogenic risks of exposures to a variety of environmental pollutants, synthetic pesticide residues, naturally occurring toxins, and pharmaceutical products using an index that relates predicted human exposure levels for carcinogens to their carcinogenic potency in rodents. Their results indicated that the risks posed by residues of synthetic pesticides or environmental pollutants ranked low in comparison to risks of naturally occurring carcinogens.

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