The phrase “environment” often refers to the natural surroundings shared by all people, including the air, water, land, plants, and wildlife. As a result, environmental risk assessment includes dangers to all habitats exposed to or influenced by these factors.
In other terms, an environmental risk assessment (ERA) is a procedure for determining the likelihood that the environment will be damaged by exposure to one or more environmental stressors, such as chemicals, pharmaceutical drugs, illness, invasive species, and climate change.
Source: Pathways for Pharmaceutical Drugs
But what exactly is a risk? How can it be measured? How is it different from a hazard?
Risk and hazard are the two core concepts of risk assessment. In simple terms, risk can be defined as the likelihood of suffering harm, loss, or death due to exposure to a hazard. A hazard is any circumstance or product that has the potential to endanger people or have a negative impact on the environment.
Our everyday existence involves some level of risk, whether slipping on a banana peel or getting into an accident while driving. The key to navigating through this is understanding the risks you are exposed to because of your personal choices and then making the decisions accordingly.
In a risk assessment, you assess potential hazards, estimate their dangers, and then decide how to reduce or eliminate them. This requires a framework for setting regulatory priorities and making decisions that cut across different environmental areas.
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How Is An Environmental Risk Assessment Performed?
Various organizations use a diverse number of frameworks to conduct environmental risk assessments. However, irrespective of the criteria used, most ERAs consist of the following fundamental processes listed below.
Source: Steps of Environmental Risk Assessment
1. Planning and Scoping
In this step, risk managers and risk assessors define the objectives, scope, and timeframe of a risk assessment. Usually, risk assessors will begin by approaching a set of basic questions like-
What or who is at risk?
Potential environmental stressor
What causes the stressor?
Consequences of being exposed to this stressor
How soon do effects become apparent?
Additionally, they list the resources that are accessible and essential for achieving the objectives. After the planning phase, the problem formulation process begins.
2. Problem Formulation
The goal of the problem formulation phase is to compile all the information required to define the issues that the environmental risk assessment should solve. This makes it easier to identify the ecological entity whose risk you want to assess and create a clear strategy. It should be clear whether the objective is to evaluate the risk for a single species, the functional group of species, particular habitat, or a particular area of concern. Additionally, it must list every query or worry that the evaluation must address.
3. Model Development
It is helpful to create a model that depicts the linkages and pathways between the origin of the hazard and the receivers at risk of injury before evaluating the scope and probability of danger. A model like this helps in identifying the essential facts or information required to finish the evaluation.
4. Risk Assessment
In this phase, the actual risk to the receptors is calculated based on the main parameters identified during the model development stage. Calculations are used to estimate the amounts of exposure that will cause negative impacts, the anticipated length or delay in the risk timeline, and what level of exposure is most likely to cause these impacts. Calculating the possibility of occurrence and estimating the potential dangers is also a crucial step in the assessment process.
Once various risks are estimated, an additional factor should be considered: the level of certainty in the assessments, as a high level of uncertainty, reduces the level of trust in ERA.
5. Risk Management
The next stage after an ERA identifies a substantial risk is to create a management strategy to mitigate or eliminate the threat. When making decisions about risk management and communicating risks to interested parties and the general public, risk managers use the results of risk assessments along with other factors, such as economic or legal issues.
They may choose risk-reduction strategies, then create a monitoring strategy to assess if the precautions lowered risk or whether ecological recovery was taking place. If it is essential to support a management choice, managers may undertake another scheduled stage or iteration of the risk assessment.
Nonetheless, ERA also has its advantages and disadvantages, just like every other assessment and policy framework.
Scope of ERA: What It Can and Cannot Do?
Even if methods for managing environmental risks have grown in importance over time and will continue to do so, it is crucial to consider what the strategies can and, perhaps more importantly, what they cannot.
A prerequisite for efficient risk communication
A process for identifying and ranking research requirements
Classification of trade-offs when comparing hazards
Highlighting the financial expenditure associated with risks
Facilitates easy decision making
Likelihood of excessive dependence and trust in outcomes
limited emphasis on a smaller aspect of a problem rather than its overall scope
Firms can keep certain points in mind to get the most benefits out of the ERA while looking for environmental risks.
Proper storage and removal of garbage
emissions into the air, such as dust and other pollutants
removal, usage, and handling of hazardous substances
the effect of raw materials on the ecosystem
Effect of packaging materials on the environment
Management of Liquid Waste
Even though the high level of uncertainty that typically accompanies the data makes ERA challenging, it has evolved into a crucial tool for governments and organizations.
It offers a way for governments to assess environmental and public safety hazards; the Indian government has its own set of guidelines for conducting the ERA. Beyond what is mandated by law, ERA is also utilized in industry to make judgments about products, procedures, and facility placement.
In simple terms, the environmental risk assessment and management process provide a plan of action for making feasible decisions to effectively protect human health and the ecosystem in light of expanding population and ecological concerns, all while ensuring transparency and understanding with the public.
Dr. Emily Greenfield is a highly accomplished environmentalist with over 30 years of experience in writing, reviewing, and publishing content on various environmental topics. Hailing from the United States, she has dedicated her career to raising awareness about environmental issues and promoting sustainable practices.