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Vulnerability as a function of individual and group resources in cumulative risk assessment.

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The field of risk assessment has focused on protecting the health of individual people or populations of wildlife from single risks, mostly from chemical exposure. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently began to address multiple risks to communities in the "Framework for Cumulative Risk Assessment" [EPA/630/P02/001F. Washington DC:Risk Assessment Forum, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2003)]. Simultaneously, several reports concluded that some individuals and groups are more vulnerable to environmental risks than the general population. However, vulnerability has received little specific attention in the risk assessment literature.


Our objective is to examine the issue of vulnerability in cumulative risk assessment and present a conceptual framework rather than a comprehensive review of the literature. In this article we consider similarities between ecologic and human communities and the factors that make communities vulnerable to environmental risks.


The literature provides substantial evidence on single environmental factors and simple conditions that increase vulnerability or reduce resilience for humans and ecologic systems. This observation is especially true for individual people and populations of wildlife. Little research directly addresses the topic of vulnerability in cumulative risk situations, especially at the community level. The community level of organization has not been adequately considered as an end point in either human or ecologic risk assessment. Furthermore, current information on human risk does not completely explain the level of response in cumulative risk conditions. Ecologic risk situations are similarly more complex and unpredictable for cases of cumulative risk.


Psychosocial conditions and responses are the principal missing element for humans. We propose a model for including psychologic and social factors as an integral component of cumulative risk assessment.

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