Chemicals are an integral part of our lives. They provide us with the consumer goods we have come to take for granted and the chemical industry is a vital part of the national economy. However, there are risks from the manufacture and use of chemicals, including risks to human health, and it is essential that these be managed sustainably. Government seeks to protect the health of those coming into contact with chemicals in a variety of ways, for example through advice, surveillance and regulation.
A necessary first step in deciding what measures may be needed to protect health is to carry out an assessment of the risks posed by exposure to the chemical. Risk assessment is carried out in a number of Departments and Agencies in various ways depending on the nature of the chemical, its use and the likely route and duration of exposure.
The process of risk assessment is subject to a number of limitations and uncertainties. In the vast majority of cases information is not available from human studies and has to be obtained instead either from experiments on other animal species or from in vitro studies. However the extrapolation of this information to the human situation carries with it various uncertainties, and these are then further compounded by uncertainties about the potential variations in interindividual susceptibility and uncertainties in estimating exposures to chemicals; expert judgement is needed in such extrapolation. Although the underlying principles are similar, because of the uncertainties inherent in the process of risk assessment the precise methods used may vary between Departments/Agencies.
As well as the variations among the risk assessment methodologies used in different Departments and Agencies, there are also a number of uncertainties inherent in the data themselves and their interpretation. The development of techniques that would help to reduce these uncertainties would be of particular value in helping to increase confidence in the outputs of risk assessments, and in the risk management choices that flow from them. Improved scientific techniques might also help to reduce the need to rely on animal testing and/or help to bring about reductions in the number of animals needed for risk assessments, principles to which Government Departments and Agencies are committed.
Modern thinking on risk analysis is that all the stages, including the risk assessment stage, need to be carried out in a transparent way with all the uncertainties clearly acknowledged and explained. It is important, therefore, that any research undertaken to help improve the process of risk assessment should take account of the need for transparency so that developments are discussed with stakeholders, including those expert committees who may wish to make use of new techniques in their own risk assessment work.
IGHRC has the overall aim of reducing the uncertainties and limitations in the conduct of chemical risk assessment for human health as employed by Government, in order to increase the robustness of and confidence in the outputs that emerge from its regulatory processes that rely on risk assessment.
IGHRC has a remit, therefore, to consider ways of enhancing the risk assessment process for chemicals, by providing guidance, as a part of the general drive to improve the basis of scientific advice and its translation into policy. The risk assessment of chemicals is of importance to a number of different Departments and Agencies, and by pooling expertise in IGHRC, and by promoting information dissemination and presentation of risk it is hoped to improve coherence between the procedures used in the different Departments and Agencies as well as securing improvements in risk assessment practice itself.
History of IGHRC
The Risk Assessment and Toxicology Steering Committee operated for three years from 1996 to 1999. It was set up to investigate how recent scientific advances could be used to improve chemical risk assessment methods. Its specific aims were to:
- review current practice for managing risks to health from chemicals, taking account of UK and overseas experience;
- hold workshops as a first step to the development and validation of innovative approaches to risk assessment; and
- start to explore with the Research Councils a joint research strategy.
Six reports were produced each with recommendations for improving risk assessment procedures (see Publications List). The reports include an overview of the work of the Committee and future directions, a review of the way government departments carry out chemical risk assessments and four reports from workshops on specific aspects of the risk assessment process (one focusing on the thorny problem of how to deal with uncertainties). The reports make recommendations in three main areas, harmonisation, development of improved methods and new approaches, and transparency.