My work in the areas of risk assessment and risk communication grew out of research on pesticides.  While developing ways to evaluate risk-benefit tradeoffs, I became interested in the policy implications of risk assessment methods.

Some research highlights in this area are:

Research Results


The methods scientific and technical experts have developed for constructing quantitative assessments of health and safety risks have major shortcomings as tools for decision analysis.  We use a model of cost effective risk management under uncertainty to discuss shortcomings of standard risk assessment methods as decision support aids, including problems of comparability of risk estimates and costs of saving statistical lives from compounded conservatism and lack of flexibility in modeling regulatory intervention.  Offsets and risk shifting due to regulation-induced changes in firm and household behavior show that risk assessments need to incorporate economic and behavioral science models.  Empirical studies demonstrate that the tools of economic analysis can help risk assessments generate much richer information sets both at the overarching level of embedding risk assessments in decision theoretic frameworks for risk management decisions and at the internal level by giving risk assessments the capacity to capture the effects of behavioral changes on risk.

Lichtenberg, Erik, “Economics of Health Risk Assessment”, Annual Review of Resource Economics 2, 53-75 (2010).

Prevention is not always more cost effective and precautionary than ex post treatment. A greater degree of precaution can result in less reliance on prevention. An empirical case study indicates that treatment alone is the most cost effective means of dealing with nitrate in most Maryland community water system wells. The incremental cost of precaution is substantial.

Lichtenberg, Erik and Tony M. Penn,  “Prevention versus Treatment Under Precautionary Regulation: A Case Study of Groundwater Contamination Under Uncertainty”, American Journal of Agricultural Economics 85, 44-58 (February 2003).

On average, corn and soybean growers in the Mid-Atlantic report the same degrees of concern about environmental risks associated with pesticide use as the general public.  But farmers as a group seem more polarized in their attitudes than the general public.  These farmers are  willing to spend more on pesticides that won't leach into groundwater.  Growers who have experienced adverse health effects from pesticides (either directly or indirectly) have heightened concern about environmental and occupational safety problems arising from pesticide use and are more likely to use certain non-chemical control practices.   

Lichtenberg, Erik and Rae Zimmerman, “Information and Farmers’ Attitudes About Pesticides, Water Quality, and Related Environmental Effects”, Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment 73, 227-236 (1999).  

Lichtenberg, Erik and Rae Zimmerman, “Farmers’ Willingness to Pay for Groundwater Protection”, Water Resources Research 35, 833-841 (March 1999).

Lichtenberg, Erik and Rae Zimmerman, “Adverse Health Effects, Environmental Attitudes, and Pesticide Usage Behavior of Farm Operators”, Risk Analysis 19, 189-211 (April 1999).  

EPA's use of safety factors to adjust for uncertainty distorts regulatory decision making by inflating risk estimates, by making risk estimates statistically non-comparable (so that they can't be used for cost effectiveness analysis), by making bans preferable to phaseouts, and by placing too much weight on low-risk, high-uncertainty problems (e.g., pesticide residues on foods) and too little on higher-risk, lower-uncertainty problems (e.g., farmworker safety)..

Lichtenberg, Erik, "Conservatism in Risk Assessment and Food Safety Policy", in Julie A. Caswell (ed.), Economics of Food Safety.  New York: Elsevier, 1991.

Lichtenberg, Erik, "Risk Assessment, Economics and Chemicals in Food", Journal of Agribusiness 9, 25-38 (Spring 1991).

The standard sanitary engineering/public health approach to handling uncertainty about health risks derives from a classical statistics approach involving the use of the upper tail of a confidence interval with a high degree of significance (margin of safety).  Under least-cost regulation, a higher margin of safety means higher total cost but lower marginal cost and may lead regulators to emphasize uncertainty reduction (e.g., through data collection) at the expense of reductions in risk on average.    Empirical studies of pesticide contamination of drinking well water and shellfish contamination by dairy wastes show that the incremental cost of increasing the margin of safety can be quite high.

Lichtenberg, Erik, David Zilberman and Kenneth T. Bogen, "Regulating Environmental Health Risks Under Uncertainty:  Groundwater Contamination in California", Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 17, 22-34 (July 1989).

Lichtenberg, Erik and David Zilberman, "Regulation of Marine Contamination Under Environmental Uncertainty:  Shellfish Contamination in California," Marine Resource Economics 4, 211-225 (1988).

Lichtenberg, Erik and David Zilberman, "Efficient Regulation of Environmental Health Risks", Quarterly Journal of Economics 49, 167-178 (February 1988).