From the Very Public to the Less Known


Some of the papers we publish address risks that are familiar to almost everyone and other papers are about topics that not too long ago would have been in science fiction books. Among the very public risks are those associated with using cell phones while driving. Young and Schreiner devised an experiment to determine how a hands-free embedded device affected airbag deployment. They concluded that these devices reduced risk of deployment to below or about the same rate as driving without a personal conversation, which notably contradicts reports from several epidemiological studies. Another of these well-known risks is contracting illnesses at recreational bathing locations. Loge et al. studied the assumption that illness is caused by microbes shed by bathers. They concluded that no generalizeable set of conditions allows prediction of whether illness will or will not occur.

Airport security is a third very public risk issue. Currently, airport screening of passengers requires equipment and security personnel to independently assess each passenger. Nie et al. devised a process that combines the responses of inspection devices and classifies each person on a continuum rather than on a binary scale. In turn, the process is used to design combinations of staff and equipment at each check station. Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death in North America, Europe and many other places, and so are the fourth well-known risk addressed in this issue. In response to criticisms that risk-based models have not shed light on CVD, Panagiotakos et al. used an existing data set to test this assertion. They found that contrary to the criticisms of risk-based models, dietary evaluation data and other lifestyle factors increase the accuracy of prediction models and also reduce estimating bias.

Other papers in this issue focus on less well-known risks and risk indicators, with however, potentially serious consequences. For example, Henry and Haimes examined risks associated with cyber attacks on process control networks. Damage to infrastructures and the flows through them can have widespread and serious consequences. The authors present a network security risk model to evaluate the utility of risk management proposals to prevent and respond to cyber attacks. Cox explores the definition that risk is frequency times consequence, pointing out that the timing of an event, for example, rather than just frequency influence risk. He urges more detailed characterizations of risky processes. Wheeler and Bailer tackled the difficult issue of estimating benchmark dose from different experimental conditions. They built a model process and tested it with sodium chloride data bases, showing that the distribution of the results rather than a single number will be helpful to risk assessors. These three papers illustrate risk issues that the public rarely hears about, but which nevertheless are important.

The remaining papers are concerned with risk management issues. In 2007, the National Research Council's Committee on Regulatory Environmental Models published a major review of the use of computational models to evaluate existing regulations and suggested modifications of them, as well as compliance with regulations. In his perspective piece, Holmes reviewed the report, underscoring the value of the idea but noting the great difficulty of including public access, rigor, accountability, transparency and other concerns that are required in regulations. This becomes even more challenging if the entire life cycle of a regulation is to be included.

Risk perception and risk communication are risk managers' links to the public. Many of us have attempted, often with little of success, to explain the likelihood of a risk to a public audience. Visschers et al. reviewed 63 studies that presented probability information about risk. The authors demonstrated that perception is influenced by format (especially when people lack the time and assistance to focus on the information) and by context (when people have time but lack background about the risk). Using risk perception of contaminated land in England as an example, Eiser et al. confirmed that trust has more to do with an expert's apparent openness and honesty than with their expertise. Schoell and Binder tried to understand why some farmers take risks with pesticides that other do not. Those taking risks tended to be less trusting of information sources, lacked feedback from experts, and had different cultural traditions.

The final contribution to the issue is a review of JoAnne Shatkin's new book on nanotechnology by Professor Richard Williams. Nanotechnology surely is a subject to which the public is not too attuned at this time, but as the technology grows it will become a challenge for risk assessors and risk managers.