Report No SR 97(02)F

Literature Review on Risk Perception and Communication for Contaminated Land

SR 97(02)F

Nov 1997


The implementation of Section 57 of the Environment Act 1995 creates a specific legal regime for contaminated land in the UK which will be administered, primarily, by Local Authority and Environment Agency staff. The objective is to ensure that land in the UK is "suitable for use" and does not pose a threat to human health and other environmental receptors. Section 57 will make detailed reference to the use of risk assessment in determining: 1) whether land is "contaminated " and 2) what should be done in the event that it is. While the use of risk assessment to regulate contaminated land is generally regarded as appropriate, it has created a need for a strategy for communicating "risk" issues in the context of potentially heightened public sensitivities and perceptions of risk.

This review extracts from the relevant literature on risk perception and risk communication, those insights and guidance which may be of potential assistance to the future management of risk associated with contaminated land in the United Kingdom. A brief description of the methods used to identify and extract material is followed by an overview of recent trends in the risk perception and communication literature. The review focuses on available insights into processes of risk perception and communication on the one hand, and into the content of risk communication on t11e other. In particular, the review notes a fundamental perspective offered by Paul Slovic in 1987.

"Lay people sometimes lack certain information about hazards. However, their basic conceptualisation of risk is much richer than that of the experts and reflects legitimate concerns that are typically omitted from expert risk assessments. As a result, risk communication and risk management efforts are destined to fail unless they are structured in a two-way process. Each side, expert and public, has something valid to contribute. Each side must respect the insights and intelligence of the other."

(Science 236, 280-285)

Implications for Contaminated Land

Public participation is often acknowledged as the enemy of efficiency. However, it is also true to say that participation procedures often generate fuller and better information - residents often know more about the history of their neighbourhood than o fficial records may provide. The risk communication literature in both North America and in Europe suggests that avoidance of conflict and confrontation may not always be possible - particularly given the complexity of risk perceptions in relation to contaminated land issues - but nevertheless by paying attention to the processes by which residents and their representatives may have access to regulators and their skills and information there is sufficient evidence to suggest that progress can be made in terms of improved risk communication and thereby environmental protection and public safety.

Risk Communication Implications for Contaminated Land: Process Issues

Prior to the implementation of the Guidance it is possible that public concerns may develop regarding the possible existence of unaddressed "risk". The literature would suggest the need to consider public risk communication activities - "outreach" - to attempt to create an increased level of awareness (or even consensus but this may be overly ambitious) around the fundamentals and objectives of the new regime prior to local site - related communication activities being required and attempted. The following procedural issues are also recognised as important from a risk communication point of view:

Risk Communication Implications for Contaminated Land: Content Issues

There are no "hard and fast" rules with regard to the appropriate content of information in communicating about contaminated land risks However it is possible to point to a number of general guidelines:


In conclusion potential heightened public concern around contaminated land risk issues requires attention not only to the content of risk information but also to what are the appropriate procedures at the relevant stages in the decision - mak7ng process for contaminated land. At the same time the choice of these procedures should be based upon sound criteria which address:

  1. the need for two-way communication and empowerment of a disenchanted public;
  2. transparency to create trust in the regulatory role;
  3. access and ability to challenge information in order to underpin the increasingly shaky foundations of the role of the expert; and
  4. openness to enhance the legitimacy of the overall process in the public mind.

Risk communication therefore needs to address the strategic issues in order to gain public and stakeholder confidence in the new approach and procedures prior to site - related issues falling under detailed local scrutiny. In due course, risk communication for site-related issues:

Given this overall guidance, it is suggested that a menu - based risk communication manual approach has a great deal to offer Local Authority and Environment Agency staff and there is both sufficient and relevant research and empirical experience available to make this a practical option.

Key Words:

Risk, Communication, Perception, Contamination

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