Just Who Is at Risk? The Ethics of Environmental Regulation
Human & experimental toxicology 2011 Aug; 30(8): 795-819
The willingness to view risk as part of daily life has vanished. A risk-averse mindset among environmental regulators engenders confusion between the ethics of intention and the ethics of consequence, leading to the elevation of the precautionary principle with unintended and often unfortunate outcomes. Environmental risk assessment is conservative, but the actual level of conservatism cannot be determined. High-end exposure assumptions and current toxicity criteria from the USEPA, based on linear extrapolation for carcinogens and default uncertainty factors for systemic toxicants, obscure the degree of conservatism in risk assessments. Ideally, one could choose a percentile of the target population to include within environmental standards, but this choice is complicated by the food, pharmaceutical and advertising industries, whose activities, inadvertent or not, often promote maladaptive and unhealthy lifestyle choices. There has lately been much discussion about background exposures and disease processes and their potential to increase the risk from environmental chemicals. Should these background exposures or disease processes, especially those associated with maladaptive individual choices, be included as part of a regulatory risk evaluation? A significant ethical question is whether environmental regulation should protect those pursuing a self-destructive lifestyle that may add to or synergize with otherwise innocuous environmental exposures. Choosing a target percentile of protection would provide an increased level of transparency and the flexibility to choose a higher or lower percentile if such a choice is warranted. Transparency and flexibility will lead to more responsive environmental regulation that balances protection of public health and the stewardship of societal resources.
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