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Uncertain Numbers and Uncertainty in the Selection of Input Distributions—Consequences for a Probabilistic Risk Assessment of Contaminated Land

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Risks from exposure to contaminated land are often assessed with the aid of mathematical models. The current probabilistic approach is a considerable improvement on previous deterministic risk assessment practices, in that it attempts to characterize uncertainty and variability. However, some inputs continue to be assigned as precise numbers, while others are characterized as precise probability distributions. Such precision is hard to justify, and we show in this article how rounding errors and distribution assumptions can affect an exposure assessment. The outcome of traditional deterministic point estimates and Monte Carlo simulations were compared to probability bounds analyses. Assigning all scalars as imprecise numbers (intervals prescribed by significant digits) added uncertainty to the deterministic point estimate of about one order of magnitude. Similarly, representing probability distributions as probability boxes added several orders of magnitude to the uncertainty of the probabilistic estimate. This indicates that the size of the uncertainty in such assessments is actually much greater than currently reported. The article suggests that full disclosure of the uncertainty may facilitate decision making in opening up a negotiation window. In the risk analysis process, it is also an ethical obligation to clarify the boundary between the scientific and social domains.

Keywords: Distribution assumptions; Monte Carlo analysis; imprecise numbers; interval analysis; probability bounds analysis

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Biology and Environmental Science, University of Kalmar, Kalmar, Sweden

Publication date: 2006-10-01

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