Speaking of RISK

by Martha C. Bean, Envir. Planner; CH2M Hill, 625 Herndon Parkway, Herndon, VA 22070,

Serial Information: Civil Engineering—ASCE, 1988, Vol. 58, Issue 2, Pg. 59-61

Document Type: Feature article


With sensitivity, common sense and preparation, an engineer can explain risk effectively and fairly without alienating the public. Risk communicators should use a standard set of terms so the public is not confused. Consistency of terms and names, of chemicals for example, should be maintained throughout a presentation. Anger and confusion can result from inconsistency in the discussion. At an Idaho Superfund site, the state expressed contamination in parts per million. Several years later, EPA measured the same level of contamination, but expressed the results in parts per billion. The public was unduly alarmed by the higher numbers and EPA officials lost credibility, even though they explained that there was no real difference between the numbers. Unit conversion is easy for environmental professionals; the public should not have to do it. The article lists helpful rules in explaining risks to the public, and the worries that most often need to be addressed by engineers. Although risk communication is one of the hardest tasks the environmental professional faces, it is important. Without it people will not understand, accept, or be able to participate in decisions that affect their lives.

Subject Headings: Public health and safety | Risk management | Pollution | Environmental Protection Agency | Environmental issues | Chemicals | Waste sites | Professional societies | Idaho | United States

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