Risk In Perspective: Hazard and Risk Are Critically Different Things

The difference between hazard and risk is a critical distinction.

Hazard and risk describe two different but related concepts. The difference may sound like an unimportant jargon-filled distinction, but this difference is critical to understanding reports of hazards and risks.

A hazard is an agent that has the potential to cause harm.

Risk measures the likelihood of harm from a hazard.

Hazards only become risks when there is exposure. Sharks are a hazard. But if I never go near the ocean, I have no exposure to sharks and face no risk of a shark attack.

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One area where this confusion between hazard and risk is very visible is in the classification of carcinogens. Hazard identification is the first step of risk assessment, but is not in and of itself a risk assessment. However, we consistently see reports of hazard identification presented as evidence of actual risk.

These problems are particularly prominent in connection to the reports by the International Agency on Cancer Research (IARC). IARC has come under fire by scientists for not being clear about its communication of hazard vs risk.

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