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On risk, hazard, cosmetics (and getting out of bed)

  • Last updated: December 2, 2019
Have you ever had a really rough day? I just have. This morning I faced electrocution, poisoning , severe organ failure, attacks by dangerous animals and potentially fatal physical trauma. That was all before I got to the office and my laptop died.
But I lived to tell the tale. What is the secret? How did I become such an intrepid and adventurous survival expert?
First, when I sleepily began to prepare my breakfast, I checked that the electric wires on the toaster were properly insulated, thus protecting me from exposure to electric shock.
Then, I just had my normal two cups of coffee, instead of the fifty in quick succession which might have caused caffeine poisoning*.
I have a slight cold, so following breakfast, I took a well-known cold remedy containing paracetamol, carefully following the dose instructions instead of taking the whole packet. This way I avoided any risk of damage to my liver.
With the dangerous animals, I was fortunate, because my neighbour’s dog, which hates me, and which I passed on the way to my car, was firmly attached to a lead. Although it clearly had attack in mind, the beast was safely out of reach.
Finally, I avoided potential massive physical trauma, by electing to take precautions such as stopping at traffic lights, thus making sure I was not exposed to oncoming traffic on a direct collision path.
I guess in fact my day was pretty much like yours. Like everyone on planet Earth, my daily routine involved encounters with hazards (that is, things that can potentially cause harm like in this case, electricity, caffeine, medication, dogs and cars). But my actual risk of harm was low or non-existent, because in each case my exposure to the hazard was limited.
Hazards are everywhere and are in many cases unavoidable. Toxic chemicals, for example, naturally occur in many everyday fruits and vegetables, (yes, including organic ones - Mother Nature is a major producer of pesticides). But the same principle holds true – the quantities are so low, and thus the exposure so limited, that no one is at risk of harm. As Paracelsus, the 16th century father of toxicology put it, the dose, not the mere presence of a substance, is the poison.
Life, among many other things, is an ongoing process of risk management. How much screen time is too much? Should I resist that extra glass of wine? Should I take an umbrella with me? Do I need sunscreen today? We are all doing it, all the time. But if we regulate our lives only according to hazard, instead of working out, however instinctively, how much of a risk we actually face, none of us would get out of bed in the morning. And we would miss out on many things our world, natural and manmade, has to offer.
Of course, I also used six cosmetics this morning (shower gel, shampoo, shaving cream, toothpaste, mouthwash, and anti-perspirant). I can be confident that nothing in my daily cosmetics use harms me. Our industry ensures our products are safe. But the way our products are regulated is based on safe exposure, not inherent hazard, calculated using intimate knowledge of the composition of the products and their use by consumer. This means that no ingredients we use are at unsafe levels, even if a consumer uses multiple products.
It works. Our safety record in Europe sets the benchmark for the world. We also produce innovative products which consumers value. But combining safety and innovation is only possible if we keep the rational and scientific distinction between hazard and real risk.
Now if only I could fix my laptop.
*Toxic Levels may vary but 10mg of caffeine (50-100 cups of coffee) is considered dangerous. Excess caffeine can of course produce other unpleasant effects apart from poisoning.
John Chave, Director General, Cosmetics Europe

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