Breaking Down Uncertain Risks for Risk Communication: A Conceptual Review of the Environmental Health Literature

Tom Jansen, Liesbeth Claassen, Ric van Poll, Irene van Kamp, Danielle R. M. Timmermans

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleAcademicpeer-review


In this conceptual review, we describe how the concept of “uncertain risk” is addressed in the scientific environmental health literature in order to clarify its meaning for risk communication. By using the International Risk Governance Council (IRGC) risk governance framework as an analytic tool we aimed to answer the question: What aspects of risk scientists are uncertain about when they refer to uncertain risks? To put the findings in context, we also answered the question what cases of uncertain risks are discussed in the literature and from what scientific research perspective these cases are addressed. We identified six situations in which scientists can refer to an uncertain risk. These situations have in common that when they are present in risk assessment definitive statements about probabilities of occurrence (to what risk generally refers to) cannot be made. Based on our analysis we advocate judicious and specific risk communication in case of uncertain risks. This involves taking into account possible different interpretations of risk terminology by different expert and societal groups and specifically expressing about what aspects of risks, like an agent's intrinsic properties, uncertainty exists rather than speaking of “potential risk.”
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4-38
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2018

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