Most people generally are aware that voluntary or involuntary exposure to chemicals and other hazardous substances can cause harm to their health or to the health of their children and the unborn fetus. Taken at the minimum necessary dosages, however, some chemicals, such as medicines, are also beneficial to human health. Manufacturing with chemicals has resulted in some new products and technologies that have, arguably, benefited society as a whole by creating new jobs, developing less costly and more durable consumer products and building materials, and improving communication and transportation. However, the true cost of the production, use, and disposal of these synthesized chemicals to the environment and human health is unknown and difficult to quantify. Furthermore, we know that hazards in the workplace associated with chemical exposure often are greater than the hazards from exposure to environmental pollutants. Many other factors also play a role, including poverty and employment status, which affect nutrition and access to health care, violence, smoking, and drug use. Scientists and policymakers still do not know the exact degree to which human health problems can be attributed to environmental pollution and how much should be attributed to other environmental factors or lifestyle choices.
In the early 1970s, the level of concern for the safety of the food supply, air, drinking water, and working environment intensified, and new laws were passed and regulations promulgated to help control and restrict the level of pollutants released into the environment. Many of these regulations were based on observed or predicted human health effects of exposure to hazardous materials either in the environment, in the food or water supplies, or in the workplace. Despite these efforts, some contend that not enough is being done to clean up and maintain a healthy environment, whereas others believe that these concerns are exaggerated or unwarranted.
Given the scientific uncertainties involved in evaluating the impact of environmental stressors on human health, it is prudent public health practice to reduce or eliminate preventable exposures to hazardous substances when an activity raises the risk of harm to human health or the environment, even if cause-and-effect relationships have not been fully established. This is the guiding principle behind the precautionary approach to risk management, a familiar component of international and European environmental law. Furthermore, environmental protection programs should effect empowerment within individuals and communities and raise the consciousness about their health, their environment, and multicultural issues. In the United States, these are particularly important given the rapidly changing demographic face of the nation, the ongoing problems associated with environmental pollution, and the increased production and use of chemicals.
RISK AS A DECISION-MAKING FACTOR
Environmental decision making is a multidimensional process. Policies and laws that are written to address concerns about environmental pollution, occupational hazards, and the protection of human health usually rely on information taken from a myriad of sources, some of which are process-based and ...