Using Science To Make Informed Decisions About Risk – Science 2.0

Every day we are inundated
with various social media posts and news sources telling us about what does or
does not work, that some things may be harmful, or that a product is not safe
because it contains a chemical that causes cancer or other adverse health
effects in animals.

You may wonder if you should start avoiding certain products in hopes of
keeping you and your family safe.. It’s confusing for other scientists as well,
and you may not be sure how or where to start when trying to make informed  decisions, so here are a few tips that help me
sort it out:

1. Understand Exposure and Risk

    We are exposed to numerous
    activities each day that have the potential to be harmful.  You may read
    something suggesting that a chemical associated with cancer is also found in
    consumer products, fruits, or beverages and wonder if it’s really causing you
    harm. All things can be a hazard because hazard simply means the ability of
    some thing or activity to cause harm. The real question is “What is my risk,
    and what is the likelihood that I will be harmed by normal use or consumption
    of this product?” 

     Risk is defined as the probability that harm will actually occur and that is
    based on how you interact with a product or chemical or thing. While a lion
    attack poses a high hazard of injury in the wild, if you live in Texas, where
    the presence of encountering a lion is generally in a zoo, your risk of an
    attack is low. It’s the same with many chemicals. Chemistry is a basic
    component of life, and we are naturally exposed to a broad range of chemicals
    by nature and because our bodies produce chemicals through normal human
    functions.

    For example, formaldehyde is
    produced by our bodies as part of the natural processes in our cells but it is
    also an essential building block in the production of hundreds of items, like
    automobile components, cabinetry, flooring and medical devices. How do some
    reports link it to cancer when it is natural? They could, for example, be using
    high doses in animals that are unlikely to be encountered by consumers or  be using some form of  statistical correlation. Recently, the U.S.
    Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initiated a risk evaluation of
    formaldehyde with the purpose of determining whether formaldehyde presents real
    risks to human health or the environment at realistic levels of exposure. 
    So should you be concerned?

    EPA evaluates chemicals
    regularly, in case there might be new evidence, so that is not cause for worry.
    When it assesses possible adverse health effects, it will consider  potential risk from formaldehyde exposure in
    the air, the normal levels of formaldehyde naturally found in the human body,
    and potential risk. It’s important to remember that risk depends on a variety
    of factors, including how much a person is exposed, how they are exposed, and
    for how long. 

     

    2. Rely on Scientific Experts and Data

      With so much noise in
      today’s digital landscape, it may be hard to determine what you should pay
      attention to and who would be the best source of information. When it comes to human health risk, scientific
      experts are your best allies. Using the formaldehyde example again, it’s
      comforting that it is one of the most extensively studied chemicals, with
      decades of scientific research focused on understanding the potential for
      development of adverse health effects, including cancer. 

      Researchers have studied how formaldehyde enters into and moves throughout the
      body and multiple international and federal agencies have evaluated the science
      around formaldehyde to establish guidelines at safe levels. The World Health
      Organization developed indoor air quality guidelines that were conservative and
      protective. In the United States, formaldehyde is also regulated and EPA even
      established standards for formaldehyde that might come from composite wood
      products. 

      Additionally, federal agencies like
      the EPA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Centers for Disease
      Control and Prevention employ a cadre of scientific experts in epidemiology,
      toxicology and exposure science. These scientists focus on evaluating
      information about chemicals and their findings and conclusions are made
      available on public websites. So when you see a story regarding a product or
      chemical, some important questions to ask are: what is the source of this information;
      is the information generated by a scientists with expertise in the field; and
      has the information been peer reviewed by other members of the scientific
      community.

      3. Weigh the Science

      When making a decision, big or
      small, it is important to evaluate all the information to make an informed
      decision. For example, when you are deciding on the best pizza restaurant to
      order takeout from, you “weigh” information you might know about
      quality of the food, cost, or past experiences. Similarly, when scientists see
      a claim about a chemical and its potential for harm, we weigh the quality of
      the data, specific strengths and weaknesses of the information, and any
      inconsistencies.

      In the formaldehyde example, there
      are thousands of peer-reviewed scientific articles and dozens of chemical
      reviews already conducted by federal and international agencies spanning
      decades. To determine risk using so many studies, we conduct a systematic
      review because it uses a clearly defined approach to identify relevant
      scientific information, evaluates the quality of the data, and weighs the
      information to reach conclusions about human health risk.  

      A few questions to consider when we weigh the
      science, and you can also use when reading claims in media include “Is all the
      evidence reaching the same conclusions about the chemical or is this just one
      paper?” “Is the evidence discordant from what other studies have found?” “What
      does the scientific community or relevant regulatory agencies conclusions say?”
      and finally, “Is the data actually addressing the question I am trying to
      answer?” 

      There are also tools that can aid
      you in spotting “bad” science that include, for example, assessing if there are
      issues with the quality of the data or if the results have been misinterpreted. 

      The above tips highlight why science-based decision making to determine human
      health risks is so important. If hazard information is taken out of context and
      not appropriately used with an understanding of the available use and exposure
      information for a chemical, the conclusions can be mischaracterized and
      misunderstood. If you want a more detailed list, you can go to “A
      Rough Guide to Spotting Bad Science
      .”