Measures of Toxicity

This article is co-written by biologist Iida Ruishalme (yours truly at Thoughtscapism) and neuroscientist Alison Bernstein, aka Mommy PhD from SciMoms.


In this piece we dive into the wealth of information available on toxicity, and take a closer look at two main categories: acute and chronic toxicity. Large versions of the infographics separately below.

We live amidst a mind-bogglingly rich sea of molecules. Nowadays, we also have astonishingly sophisticated methods of chemical detection at our disposal, and are able to measure smaller and smaller traces of substances in our environment. This is great! We can learn to understand molecular interactions better than ever before, and with the help of this information we can also better monitor and regulate potentially harmful exposures.

But when we know, we worry. Sometimes this wealth of knowledge leads to undue fear of substances even when they are present in minute quantities that pose little risk and a wish to remove these traces altogether. However, trying to remove all traces of unwanted substances in our environment is an impossible goal. Continue reading

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Risk In Perspective: Population Risk Does Not Equal Individual Risk

nullThis series is a collaboration between neuroscientist Alison Bernstein and biologist Iida Ruishalme. Errors in risk perception are at the core of so many issues in science communication that we think this is a critical topic to explore in detail. This series is cross-posted on SciMoms and Thoughtscapism. Continue reading

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Risk In Perspective: Zero Risk Is an Impossible Dream

This series is a collaboration between neuroscientist Alison Bernstein and biologist Iida Ruishalme. Errors in risk perception are at the core of so many issues in science communication that we think this is a critical topic to explore in detail. This series is cross-posted on SciMoms and Thoughtscapism. Continue reading

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Risk In Perspective: Hazards Are Not All Created Equal

This series is a collaboration between neuroscientist Alison Bernstein and biologist Iida Ruishalme. Errors in risk perception are at the core of so many issues in science communication that we think this is a critical topic to explore in detail. This series is cross-posted on SciMoms and Thoughtscapism.

Alison and Iida would like to thank Anne Martin for her graphic design work in translating our abstract ideas into graphics. Anne is a designer, illustrator, and researcher currently finishing her PhD in Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah. You can see her work through her website at hungrybraindesign.com and follow her on Twitter @thehungrybrain. She also runs a blog teaching researchers how to visually communicate their science at vizsi.com.


All hazards are not equal

We have a tendency to selectively pay attention to certain hazards. We also tend to consider all hazards we pay attention to as equally risky and all risks as equally harmful. However, hazards can affect different numbers of people (depending on exposure level, genetics, and a variety of other factors) and have very different severity of harm (from temporary skin irritation to death). The simplified graph below provides a general framework for thinking about hazards. Hazards are binary; they either are or are not a hazard. To determine how risky a hazard is and what to do about it, we must consider how many people are affected and how severe the harm is.

Looking at the graph, we can roughly divide hazards into four categories based on how many people are harmed and the severity of the harm. Notice that whether something is natural or synthetic does not impact which category it falls into.

null Continue reading

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Radiation and Cancer Risk – What Do We Know?

453992-a-sign-that-reads-high-radiation-area-avoid-unnecessary-stay-is-picturI recently visited Switzerland’s interim repository for nuclear waste, called ZWILAG, and wrote about the insights gained during that experience in Warming My Hands On Nuclear Waste. While in the heart of the place – the dry cask storage hall which houses the spent nuclear fuel – we crossed a line with a sign that read: “HIGH RADIATION AREA No unnecessary stay !!!” (photo).

We were allowed into the area, and could discover for ourselves the difference to touch of older (cold) casks and the freshly brought ones (pleasantly warm). The guides vaguely said the levels of radiation in the area were not dangerous in the time-frame of our visit, or the time spent inside for the people working there, but they could not give me more specific information about limits, or about a length of duration that could be considered harmful. This left me curious. I wanted to know:

How dangerous is a “high radiation area?”

Continue reading

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Warming My Hands on Nuclear Waste

aare

River Aare from the train window

I left my sleeping family at home and headed out without breakfast in the freezing cold to catch the 7 AM train, enthusiastic about the prospect of visiting a nuclear waste repository. I’ve written about nuclear waste at length, and I thought it only right that I should also go and learn about its storage first-hand. Continue reading

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Risk In Perspective: Hazard and Risk Are Critically Different Things

This series is something neuroscientist Alison Bernstein and biologist Iida Ruishalme have been brewing over for a long time. Risk perception is such a big crux in science communication that it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on. We decided to cross-post it both on SciMoms and Thoughtscapism in the hopes of spreading the message far and wide.


The difference between hazard and risk is a critical distinction

Hazard and risk describe two different but related concepts. The difference may sound like an unimportant jargon-filled distinction, but this difference is critical to understanding reports of hazards and risks.

A hazard is an agent that has the potential to cause harm.

Risk measures the likelihood of harm from a hazard.

risk hazard sharksHazards only become risks when there is exposure. Sharks are a hazard. But if I never go near the ocean, I have no exposure to sharks and face no risk of a shark attack. (Granted, even if you go in the ocean, the risk of shark attack is actually very low.) Despite this difference, we tend to consider all hazards as risks, regardless of our level of exposure.

Continue reading

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