The concept of “risk” permeates society. It is a consequence of the world that we live in, whether it be risk of losing money, risk of failing an exam, risk of getting emotionally hurt, or risk of falling ill. However, it is something that, in many cases, we must accept in order to feel some level of happiness and satisfaction.  One form of risk that many individuals find difficult to cope with is health risk from environmental contamination. This is a risk that is often imposed[1] on an individual, possibly unknowingly, and that can cause severe outcomes ranging from skin irritation to chronic disease or cancer. At the same time, the processes that produce toxic exposures also produce many of the luxuries that are taken for granted in late industrial cultures.

For example, plastic has become an indispensible material. It is in water bottles, food containers, appliances, and furniture.

Marine litter. On its way to becoming microplastics.
Marine litter. On its way to becoming microplastics.

Plastics in medical devices save lives on a daily basis. However, they also leach compounds such as phthalates (a class of chemicals classified as endocrine disruptors[2]) and bisphenol-a (a reproductive, developmental, and systemic toxicant[3]) into the environment. The manufacturing of these compounds emits volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as acetaldehyde[4], cumene[5], and phenol[6]. These compounds can cause cancer, respiratory diseases, and central nervous system effects. The ubiquitous use, cost effectiveness of production and consumption, and convenience of plastic products make it a difficult material to eliminate. The benefits of plastics may outweigh the health risks associated with the compounds that compose it.

This tradeoff[7],[8] presents a complicated Catch 22: eliminate contamination or eliminate product? One method of mediating this battle is to improve technology to reduce emissions associated with production or create alternatives to harmful materials. This comes at a cost that many industries are not willing to assume. Until all stakeholders (consumers, producers, regulators, and individuals with exposure risks) are able to work together to prioritize their needs, address feasibility, and manage risk, residents surrounding facilities that emit harmful contaminants will be the ones to suffer.


Further Reading:

Discard Studies



[1] Schmidt M. (2004). Investigating risk perception: a short introduction. Chapter 3 in: Loss of agro-biodiversity in Vavilov centers, with a special focus on the risks of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). PhD Thesis, Vienna, Austria.

[2] U.S. EPA. (2007). TEACH Chemical Summary: Phthalates. Retrieved from

[3] U.S. EPA. (2014). Bisphenol A (BPA) Action Plan Summary. Retrieved from

[4] U.S. EPA. (2013) “Acedaldehyde.” Technology Transfer Network – Air Toxics Website. Retrieved from

[5] U.S. EPA. (2013). “Cumene.” Technology Transfer Network – Air Toxics Website. Retrieved from

[6] ATSDR. (2008). “Toxicological Profile for Phenol.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from

[7] Graham, J. D. (1997). Risk versus risk tradeoffs in protecting health and the environment. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

[8] Gray, G and Cohen, J. (2001). Confronting Tradeoffs in Protecting Human Health and the Environment. National Rural Water Association. Retrieved from


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photo credit middle: Snemann via photopin cc

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