Are we more or less exposed to hazardous substances than in the past?

expo discaricaAre we more or less able to control the sources of environmental contamination and to protect the local and global environmental quality and our health?

Let’s confront these questions without indulging in any alarmism. On the contrary, I would like to underline the need to always using contextually two instruments: one is the awareness of RISKS to which we are all exposed in societies of old industrialisation; the other is given by existence of SOLUTIONS already been tested or are innovative, but which allow us to deal with these problems without having to start from scratches every time.

The growing dependency on technological objects, either in the number and in their complexity and abstractiveness, the exponential growth of the amount of wastes produced locally and at at the global scale, and the increasing complexity of the social fabric produced two type of answers:

  • the birth of the scientific discipline known ad Risk Analysis, which in the most diverse fields estimates environmental and public health risks, in a fashion as much as possible objective, measurable and verifiable;
  • the spreading among citizens, both expert and non-expert, of an increasing perception of technological and industrial risks, and of the social risks connected to those.

The scientific evaluation of the risk of exposure to hazardous substances – Risk Analysis – is a tool supporting risk REDUCTION and RESIDUAL RISK MANAGEMENT strategies. But it is vastly demonstrated that the opinions of risk experts are not sufficient to policy makers to make decisions on the siting of an industrial plant – be it either a chemical industry or a waste thermal treatment plant – or to carry out the interventions for the remediation of polluted sites.

The reasons for this paralysis are many and complex. On one side there are decades of industrial practices that have, sometimes irreversibly, modified the territory, the landscape, the historical settlements of a community. On the other there is a heightened awareness of the limits of the changes that can be imposed on the environment before its quality is deteriorated and our health affected. Even though there is the tendency to forget that this increased awareness is also the results of decades of environmental battles that have already gathered successes and have lead to an effective evolution of environmental policies and public controls.


There are no short cuts: to solve a complex problem one must advance along a complex path. In fact, we suggest that the solution to exposure risk is built and put to practice by the ensemble of social values, of available technologies and of individual behaviors that contribute to make a path of risk reduction and management of residual risk shared by the highest number of involved actors.

comunita di diversi

This approach exposes the pivotal problem: effective solutions are built only while protecting the community as a whole. All the members of a community must be protected, not only the residents of fashionable neighborhoods. This theme cannot be confronted without being open about the fact that the siting of industries and of waste treatment plants has, up till now, generated discrimination: the risk has not been equally distributed. Poor nations and, within rich nations, poor areas, have been forced to cohabit with industrial plants, and the emissions and environmental loads associated with their operations. This originates a conflict which is rooted in social injustice and ratifies it.

In societies of old industrialisation, and now in emerging economies, the level of consumption has been so high for decades that the capability of the environment to regenerate itself has been deeply impaired and the availability of natural resources has been eroded. Thus to confront the consequences of our gigantic buying-throwing attitude and of the industries that support it, and to design solutions confronting the wastes problems in its completness, I suggest to adopt a METHOD and to put the decision on waste withing the borders of the discussion on science, on technological applications and on consumption levels.

To this aim we present different approaches, derived from different disciplines – from engineering to chemistry to sociology and anthropology – with whom environmental and social impacts of production and consumption have been confronted: we would like to overcome the mistake of keeping each single approach separated form the others.

We actually believe that the challenge, both for old industrialisation countries and for emerging economies, is to stand up to the consequences of industrial production and mass consumption with the recognition that technical, social and cultural aspects are inseparably fastened in risk representation and in the design of solutions.

But one method ranks higher than the others, because is the one that facilitates the dialog and makes explicit how decisions are made: it consist in describing the network of the actors that are involved in waste management. This description requires to select and connect the elements that influence waste generation, the concrete appearance of the consequences on the community, local and global environment, health, and that condition the search for solutions, both technical and social. 

Selecting actors and their relationships helps understanding how final decisions have been made in the past and/or how could be changed in the present, this description clarifies what the different actors bring to the conflict and how they affect decisions. This method derives from ANT (the Actor Network Theory). 

Moreover, we should always remember that for a wicked problem the DESCRIPTION is part of the solutions.