Communication about risks and hazards to health and the environment is one of the most sensitive and controversial areas of public communication. Providing members of the public with insufficient or inaccurate information about a hazard may deprive them of the opportunity to take precautionary or preventive action and can have serious detrimental consequences - in some cases, literally costing lives. Where timely provision of information could reduce or eliminate a threat to health or the environment, it should be incumbent on those holding such information to make it available forthwith to the potentially affected public.
Risk communication should aim to convey to the potentially affected public the most objective information on the real levels of risk to which they are or might be exposed. However, there are many obstacles to achieving this objective. Communicating with the public about risks often involves relaying complex technical facts in lay terms without losing accuracy. Sometimes it involves bridging a gap between public perception and objective fact, in so far as the latter can be established. In some fields, it may involve communicating uncertainty or diversity of opinions. Ethical and political issues may be at stake. But these are not reasons to avoid communication; on the contrary, there will be most public interest in those very areas.
This strategy features in the framework of Agenda 21 as formulated at UNCED (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), now coordinated by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and implemented through national and local authorities. Agenda 21 recommends improving databases and information systems on toxic chemicals, such as emission inventory programmes, through provision of training in the use of those systems as well as software, hardware and other facilities.
Through a WHO European regional office project, in collaboration with IPCS, networking among centres for toxic alerts is being developed.
The Latin American and Caribbean Chemical Information Network disseminates chemical information, its geographical location and the means of access; promotes the use of conventional and electronic systems for the solution of scientific and technological problems; trains experts in chemical information in Latin America; promotes the exchange of information between the countries of the region; establish and strengthen the links between scientific-academic systems and the industrial sector.