Viewpoint: Hazard vs risk—What Europe gets wrong about pesticide safety

hazrisk

When reading articles, blog posts, or policy papers related to the use of pesticides, we often hear the word “hazard”. “Highly-hazardous” chemicals or substances are in the focus of many environmental groups, who demand that the EU cleans up its act on the alleged ‘poison’ in our food. Theirs is a misunderstanding of the scientific meaning of “hazard” and “risk”

Risk-based regulation manages exposure to hazards. For instance, the sun is a hazard when going to the beach, yet sunlight enables the body’s production of vitamin D and some exposure to it is essential to human health. As with everything else, it is the amount of exposure that matters. A hazard-based regulatory approach to sunlight would shut us all indoors and ban all beach excursions, rather than caution beach-goers to limit their exposure by applying sunscreen. The end result would be to harm, not protect human health. 

The same logic of hazard-based regulation is all too often applied in crop protection regulation, where it creates equally absurd inconsistencies. For instance, if wine was sprayed on vineyards as a pesticide, it would have to be banned under EU law, as alcohol is a known and quite potent carcinogen at high levels of consumption. 

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By ignoring the importance of the equation Risk = Hazard x Exposure, hazard-based regulation does not follow a scientifically sound policy-making approach.

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