State leaders gather to discuss public health risks

Public health risks are everywhere, but they may not be as threatening as some people think. ThatâÄôs what David Ropeik, a risk consultant and former Harvard University professor , told an audience of about 100 people from the state government and area industries. His speech was part of the Assessing, Managing and Communicating Environmental Risk: A Call to Action seminar, an event hosted Thursday by the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs . When discussing issues of public health, Ropeik said itâÄôs important to understand how people perceive risk and react to it. âÄúSome risks are scarier than others,âÄù Ropeik told the audience, âÄúfacts notwithstanding.âÄù PeopleâÄôs perception of risk is often different from the actual threat, Ropeik said, and by improving communication, people can make healthier decisions. He said itâÄôs natural for people to act in response to a threat before they think it through. âÄúThe human brain is constructed to fear first and think second,âÄù he said. By working on communicating risk responsibly, Ropeik said institutions can avoid causing panic, and people can avoid worrying about things that pose little real threat. Ropeik also emphasized the importance of communicating risk without telling people what to do. âÄúWhen you invoke respect, you can communicate much more effectively,âÄù he said. Risk communication should become a job responsibility for project managers, Ropeik said, and itâÄôs important to include the public in analysis processes to make them feel more comfortable. Sophia Ginis , outreach manager for the Humphrey Institute, said the event was intended to bring together groups from around the state to talk about the best ways to analyze and communicate public health risks, especially relating to potentially dangerous chemicals. âÄúWithin the last couple years, the Minnesota state Legislature has been inundated with different chemicals that theyâÄôve had to regulate, and itâÄôs been quite a challenge,âÄù Ginis said. Deciding whether to ban a chemical is a complicated issue that needs input from many different groups, state Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury said. She said banning unsafe chemicals âÄúis a very important topicâÄù in public health, and hopefully by using better risk analysis and communication techniques, a more thoughtful process could be implemented. In his speech, Ropeik encouraged the use of better risk communication in policymaking, calling it âÄúa vital and overlooked tool for risk management.âÄù He said getting more professionals educated about risk communication is important, and the event Thursday was a good step. âÄúWeâÄôve accomplished a great deal by just putting people in a room and having a civil conversation,âÄù he said.