Risk communication is often perceived as the last and least component of risk analysis, well behind risk assessment and risk management; conversely, it is a powerful tool to build the necessary bridges between science and the public.
This holds especially true in regard to risk factors which are severe, widespread and burdened by so many uncertainties as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC).
So, what can we achieve by developing risk communication on EDC?
First of all, awareness raising. The general public, media and policy makers have to know what EDC are and the related concerns for human health, product safety and environmental quality, therefore, scientists and risk assessors may eventually talk to knowledgeable stakeholders; equally important, the knowledgeable societal stakeholders can interact with the the scientific world as they are capable to aim questions and expectations.
Moreover, risk communication supports the citizens ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources. The multiple voices in the complex ensemble made by “official” and social media may easily provide highly different or opposite messages on a controversial topic like EDC: the citizen may receive in the same day a loud alarm on the safety of certain foods and an industry-backed rebuttal of concerns expressed by reputable scientists. Rather than an effort to persuade people to adopt a certain opinion, risk communication is an effort to help people making more informed judgements. Therefore, communication is based on trust: public bodies should provide information that is consistent, understandable and useful. This is the pathway toward empowerment.
Empowerment is enacted when the knowledge leads to behaviors that reduce the risks. And here is a next and critical target. People are exposed to several EDC in consumer products; consumers may minimise risks by a correct use, (e.g., plasticware in the kitchen, plant protection products in house orchards) and/or by selecting other products (e.g., reducing the purchase of clothes with water/stain repellent treatments based on perfluoroalkylated substances-PFAS). Most EDC are likely to be banned or restricted by the current European legislative framework. This process obviously takes time, whereas empowerment of consumers serves to reduce exposure “here and now”. An example is provided by the “Decalogue for the Citizen on EDC” issued in Italy by the Ministry for Environment and the National Health Institute. Besides the general public, empowerment is badly needed by communities living in the many European areas polluted by chronic releases of EDC (e,g., PFAS in Veneto, North-Eastern Italy); indeed, the health of these communities will benefit from a consistent European guidance on risk-reducing behaviours.
Empowerment may also have a proactive role. Consumer awareness is a good instrument to promote voluntary actions by the industry, such as replacement of high-concern chemicals in consumer products; for example, in the recent past, consumers pressure has led some main producers to anticipate the regulatory move toward bisphenol-free baby bottles, taken by EU in 2011.
That’s it: Earnest (science-based, clear, understandable, timely, usable and trustworthy) communication is a tool for reducing health risks related to EDC exposure.
Alberto Mantovani, email@example.com
Francesca Baldi, firstname.lastname@example.org
Istituto Superiore di Sanità – Italian National Health Institute (ISS), Roma, Italy