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Keywords:

  • Flame retardants;
  • risk amplification;
  • risk distribution;
  • risk migration

It is a common experience that attempts to mitigate a risk lead to new risks, and that risks formerly thought to be of one kind become another kind as technical knowledge evolves. This phenomenon of risk migration suggests that we should take processes over time, rather than specific risks or specific technologies, as a unit of analysis. Several of our existing models of the social management of risks—such as that of social risk amplification—are process models of a kind but are still oriented around the playing out of a particular event or issue. A case study of risk in a group of flame-retardant compounds was used as the basis of a grounded, exploratory analysis of migration processes, the phenomena that influence them, and their consequences. This illustrated how migration naturally occurs from risks that are understood, in which risk bearers have at least some agency, to risks that are not understood and not capable of being influenced by risk bearers. It illustrated how the simultaneous improvement in measuring technology, which detects potential toxins at increasingly small concentrations, combines with intuitive models that ignore concentration to produce conditions likely to generate anxiety. And it illustrated how pressure groups and commercial interests exploit this effect. It also showed how migration makes precautionary action problematic, and how more generally it tends to undermine a society's capacity to cope with risk.