Across virtually every segment of society, we witness how chemicals have delivered significant benefits to society. However, those advancements have come in tandem with exposure to greater quantities of chemicals than at any other time in history.

Today, estimates show that 400,000 new chemical compounds are created worldwide each year. In the European Union (EU) and United States alone, the chemical industry is a $3 trillion enterprise.

With the growing number of chemicals introduced into our environment comes greater potential for human exposure. Environmental regulatory agencies worldwide have implemented rigorous risk-assessment processes to determine our risk exposure to hazardous chemicals.

Today, we stand at a critical moment in chemical risk assessment, as the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) legislation in the EU shifts that responsibility to industry, which must demonstrate the safe use of substances across their life cycle. REACH also extends from chemicals used in industrial processes to those found in our day-to-day life, including cleaning products, clothing, electrical appliances and more.

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Starting with Risk Assessments

A risk assessment is a systematic approach to assessing potential health risks associated with exposure to known or potentially toxic agents. As the business of chemicals expanded, Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) professionals have gained the necessary skills to recognize, evaluate, control and communicate risk as we work in partnership to minimize human and environmental hazards.

Risk to chemical exposure can be defined as the function of exposure level (duration, concentration and route of exposure) and the toxicity of the chemical. Put more simply, the higher the toxicity or the exposure, the greater the risk. For most toxic chemicals in occupational and/or domestic environments, excessive exposure and inappropriate use of chemicals directly causes elevated risk levels.

A typical risk assessment process can be broken down into four components:

  • Hazard Identification: Determines adverse health effects in humans and/or environment, caused by exposure to chemicals

  • Dose-response Assessment: Measures the relationship between level of exposure (dose) and the effect on humans and the environment

  • Exposure Assessment: Evaluates the potential chemical exposures to humans and the environment from the production, distribution, use, disposal and recycle of a chemical substance

  • Risk Characterization: Integrates those identification and assessment results to determine the probability of adverse health and/or environmental effects.

Since we as a society do not have adequate resources to control all chemical hazards at zero-risk level, even if such a thing were possible, other factors must be considered in selecting risk management goals and techniques. That decision-making today is shaped in part by economics, technical feasibility, political pressures and public opinion.

To protect public health and environmental concern, many industrialized countries have enacted laws regulating the manufacturing and importing of chemicals. U.S. regulatory agencies, including the Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA), have standardized risk assessment processes. Now, the EU has taken another major step forward with REACH.

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