Risk Reduction & New Priorities

Risk Reduction & New Priorities

When people think about the risks associated with manufacturing, says Olivier Jolliet, associate professor of environmental health sciences, they tend to think of the risks affiliated with product manufacturing. But in fact, he says, we should be looking at the complete life cycle of a given product and considering the risks associated with each phase of its existence--from the extraction of raw material through the manufacturing process to product use and disposal.

"At each step you have emissions of different chemicals," explains Jolliet, who is also a founding member of the school's Center for Risk Science and Communication. "Within the entire life cycle, then, where do you have the highest risk and impact? That's really the place to set priorities for industry. Which emissions should you reduce, and in which phase of the life cycle?"

For the past several years, primarily at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, Switzerland, where he led the Industrial Ecology and Life Cycle Systems Group, Jolliet has devoted his research to answering these questions. He has worked with public authorities, including local governments and environmental protection agencies in France and Switzerland, as well as with a range of industries, among them automobile manufacturing, chemical industries, transportation services, and telecommunications.

Jolliet determines the potential risks to human health by tracking what individual emissions do in the environment, both outdoors and indoors. With any industrial product, his first step is to identify the various chemicals it emits and then calculate the "intake fraction" of each such emission. The intake fraction is that portion of an emission which is taken in by the population. "If I emit a kilogram of a given substance, how many milli-grams will be ingested, and where, and what are their impacts on human health?" he asks.

He has developed a series of multimedia models showing the impact of emissions from certain chemicals on the water, air, soil, and plants at different "spatial levels," from the regional to the multicontinental. Eventually, Jolliet would like to extend these models to the local scale in order to assess both the local and long-range impacts of emissions in such areas as the Great Lakes region. "We also have a great challenge ahead," he adds, "which is to link impacts on the environment to impacts inside the body, from the global down to the nanoscale."

The models he has developed can be used in a broad range of applications where an independent, scientifically based assessment is needed, among them:

  • Comparisons of pesticide risks with the risks of natural chemicals in foods and the benefits of particular diets
  • The evaluation of product life-cycle risks and the benefits of new technologies and materials
  • The evaluation of contaminated sites as well as waste management
  • The distribution of risks and impacts associated with consumption and trade, and their consequences for environmental justice
  • Risk assessment at the corporate level and socially responsible investment

With its long tradition of independence and integrity, the University of Michigan has a central role to play in all of these areas, Jolliet says. The ultimate aim, he adds, is to "move toward comparative risk. You can't eliminate all risk, so the question becomes, how do you reduce associated risk over the whole life cycle? These are really priority-setting tools for both government and industry. If we have to implement protective legislation, let's make sure we do so where it matters."

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“You can’t eliminate all risk, so the question becomes, how do you reduce associated risk over the whole life cycle?”