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Understanding emerging environmental health risks: A framework for responding to the unknown

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Society faces risks, hazards, and crises on a seemingly daily basis. This is not new; indeed, pre‐modern societies were subjected to natural hazards that could be attributed to fate (e.g., natural disasters), and human‐made hazards considered manageable. However, late‐modern society is increasingly exposed to risks that are products of the modernization process itself (e.g., health impacts of climate change) emerging from broad changes in human‐environment interactions. We typically have insufficient or incomplete scientific knowledge to make calculated governance decisions that protect the public and our economies from these risks. Yet, a governance response is dictated. Understanding and anticipating public perceptions of emerging risks, therefore, has clear implications from both risk management and communication perspectives. Furthermore, it is essential that a response takes account of the context within which the risk is occurring. This paper describes the development of a place‐based conceptual framework for characterizing public response to emerging environmental health risks with the goal of informing governance responses. A worked example is provided through the application of the framework to the apparent epidemic of food allergies in Canada. Despite some gaps in available data, the framework appears robust and exhibits the potential to contribute to debates and decision‐making around risk governance.
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Keywords: cadre fondé sur le lieu; emerging environmental health risk; gestion des risques; gouvernance; governance; nouveaux risques de santé environnementale; perception des risques; place‐based framework; risk management; risk perception

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: September 1, 2015

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