Learning Lab Denmark - INCUBEus

G. Chemical Industry

A good thing that can be said about accidents in the chemical industry is that they normally are not as bad as accidents in the nuclear industry. But according to Lee Clarke (Clarke, 1989), the main reasons for accidents in both of them is the prevalence of organisational chaos and personal jeopardy. A prime example of this verdict is the case of the Bhopal disaster (see card #G4).

A study conducted by Slovic et al. (Slovic 1992/2000) investigated the difference in lay people's risk assessment and toxicologists' risk assessment in relation to the chemical industry.

Though not as dismissive as towards nuclear industry, the study showed that the public perceived even small exposures to chemicals as being very harmful. 40 percent of the respondents in the study said they avoided every contact with chemicals. It is reasonable to attribute this phenomenon to the psychological effect 'contagion': the assumption that once an object has been in contact with something harmful or dirty, no matter how briefly, it will always be dirty.

The majority of the participants in the study prefer not to be in contact with chemicals at all, but at the same time they are aware that their resistance derives from their lack of knowledge of the industry. This illustrates how laypeople tend to withdraw from a technology when it appears to be too complex for them to understand. Thus, the gap between laypeople and science expands.

According to the study, even toxicologists disagree on risk assessment in relation to the chemical industry. A high percentage of the participating toxicologists doubted the reliability of animal studies and bacteriological studies, which form the backbone of their science. This view also conflicts with the official messages given to the public. The American Chemical Society, for instance, informs the public that animal studies are "the best predictors we have" (Slovic, 2000:311).

When it comes to pesticides and food preservatives, the perceived benefit more or less equals the perceived risk. According to the conclusion of the study, the public tends to accept a higher risk when the technology is of great benefit to community. In this case, we can assume that pesticides and food preservatives are generally accepted due to their perceived benefit.

Further reading:
Perrow, C. (1984/1999). Normal Accidents. Living with High-Risk Technologies. pp. 101-122, Princeton University Press.

Slovic, P. (2000). The Perception of Risk. pp. 285-315, Earthscan Publications.

Clarke, L. (1989). Acceptable Risk? - Making Decisions in a Toxic Environment, University of California, Berkeley and Los Angeles.

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Nine Technologies

A. Air Transport
B. Buildings
C. Land Transport
D. Marine Transport
E. Bridges and Dams
F. Oil Tankers
G. Chemical Industry
H. Medical Industry
I. Nuclear Industry

Nine Theories

Quantitative Risk Assessment
Decision Analysis
Cost-benefit Analysis
Normal Accident Theory
High Reliability Organisations
Risk communication
Arena Theory
Cultural Theory

Five Categories

Hazard (0-1000)
Range (km2)
Fear Factor (0-10)
Media Effect (0-100)