Variability and Uncertainty Meet Risk Management and Risk Communication


* Address correspondence to Dr. Kimberly Thompson, Assistant Professor of Risk Analysis and Decision Science, Harvard School of Public Health, 677 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115; tel.: (617) 432-4285; fax: (617) 432-3699;


In the past decade, the use of probabilistic risk analysis techniques to quantitatively address variability and uncertainty in risks increased in popularity as recommended by the 1994 National Research Council that wrote Science and Judgment in Risk Assessment. Under the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act, for example, the U.S. EPA supported the development of tools that produce distributions of risk demonstrating the variability and/or uncertainty in the results. This paradigm shift away from the use of point estimates creates new challenges for risk managers, who now struggle with decisions about how to use distributions in decision making. The challenges for risk communication, however, have only been minimally explored. This presentation uses the case studies of variability in the risks of dying on the ground from a crashing airplane and from the deployment of motor vehicle airbags to demonstrate how better characterization of variability and uncertainty in the risk assessment lead to better risk communication. Analogies to food safety and environmental risks are also discussed. This presentation demonstrates that probabilistic risk assessment has an impact on both risk management and risk communication, and highlights remaining research issues associated with using improved sensitivity and uncertainty analyses in risk assessment.