Health Risk Assessment: A Course Review

It is time to review and discuss on the last course of the first year of the Toxicology programme: Health Risk Assessment. During this blog I will provide with a very detailed discussion and explanation on how the course is structured and carried out. Additionally, I will highlight the most relevant aspects, as well as what you can expect from it. Finally, I will talk about my experience on how online learning worked out fine for me during this course.

Course structure

Health Risk Assessment is the very last course before summer break (late April – early June). The course lasts approximately 7 weeks and comprehends a total of 9 credits. In my opinion, Health Risk Assessment is probably the most integrative and applied course from the whole master’s programme in Toxicology. This is because it integrates all the knowledge that you have acquired in the past courses, with the aim of learning how to assess the risks that chemicals represent to human health. It is important to make clear that this course is entirely theoretical, which means that there is not practical lab work. However, during this course you learn how to calculate health-based guidance values, how to perform a risk assessment for a specific chemical and how to assess the quality and reliability of data for a risk assessment report.  The general structure of the course focuses mostly on lectures, workshops and seminars imparted by different lecturers and regulatory agencies in Sweden. Nevertheless, a very important part of this course also focuses on group work, discussions, oral presentations and a couple of written assignments.

“Credits: Aline Colonnello”

Topics

Health Risk Assessment encompasses a wide range of topics which at the same time are related one to each other. This is because of the integrative nature of the course in which all subjects are necessary in order to understand the process of a risk assessment. Some of the most representative topics and concepts are: definition of risk, hazard identification, exposure assessment, , identification of points of departure such as the no-observed adverse effect level (NOAEL), assessment factors, calculation of health-based guidance values such as the tolerable daily intake (TDI), risk characterization, classification and labelling of chemicals, regulation and legislation of chemicals, regulatory authorities in Sweden and the European Union (REACH), classification of carcinogenic substances according to IARC, risk communication to the public and integration of in vivo, in silico, in vitro and epidemiological data.

I would like to mention that a peculiarity of this course is that we have seminars imparted by several Swedish regulatory agencies such as the Swedish Medical Products Agency (Läkemedelsverket), the Swedish Food Agency (Livsmedelsverket) and the Swedish Chemicals Agency (KEMI) at which we learn how is like working as toxicologist in a regulatory agency. In other words, these seminars highlight some of the job opportunities that we can have as toxicologists.

“Credits: Aline Colonnello”

Risk Assessment Report

The risk assessment report is a mandatory learning activity in which you and your group, with the guidance of a tutor, are expected to carry out a risk assessment of a given substance. This activity is a huge and very important part of the course, because you practically develop a 10-page report and an oral presentation from the first until the last week. In addition, during the progress of the lectures and seminars you collect most of the basis and literature that you need in order to make the report. At first, it may seem like a very simple activity, but over time you start to realise that is more complex than what you expected. Next, I will provide with a table which simplifies and summarizes the structure of the risk assessment:

ParameterDescription
Characterization, occurrence and use-Physic-chemical properties
-Occurrence in products and environment
-Use in industry
Toxicokinetics-Absorption
-Distribution
-Metabolism
-Excretion
Hazard identification-Toxicological profile: neurotoxicity, reprotoxicity, acute toxicity, etc
-Identification of a critical effect
-Identification of a critical study: point of departure for calculations
Health-based guidance valuesCalculation of a TDI for example
Exposure assessment-RouteSource
-Sensitive groups
-Exposure levels
Risk characterization-Calculation of a margin of exposure
-Conclusion on the risk: Is it an acceptable risk?
-Uncertainties
-Improvements

I know the structure of this report at this point might seem very confusing, but don’t worry cause during the course you will get to understand and integrate all concepts in a risk assessment.

Evaluation

The evaluation of this course is relatively simple because it is composed of the risk assessment report in which the grade is either pass or fail and the final exam in which the grade can be fail, pass or pass with distinction. This last one is basically the part of the evaluation that determines your final grade. This is because the risk assessment report is only a mandatory requirement which needs to be satisfactorily completed in order to pass the course.

Online modality

Due to the pandemic outbreak, this year the Health Risk Assessment course had to be held online. My personal experience with this modality was in general very good. However, there were some minor difficulties during the course. The first one is that we had communication problems in some of our meetings. Other complication is that sometimes I had technical problems, and this made it hard for me to follow some of the lectures and seminars. The last difficulty was that we had a take-home exam, and usually these types of exams, as I mentioned in a previous blog, tend to be heavier and harder than normal exams. Nonetheless, if you prepare yourself very well by reading the presentations and discussing with your classmates, the exam should flow smoothly.   

“Credits: Aline Colonnello”

Despite the above-mentioned difficulties, the course flowed very well mainly because it is fully theoretical and had no lab work. So, we just had to attend the lectures, seminars and workshops, discuss in breakout rooms and organize on how to work in the report. To sum everything up, I think that the sensation of this course did not change very much from a presential course and I still enjoyed it very much. 

If you have any questions regarding this course or the Toxicology programme in general, don’t hesitate and contact me!

Aline Colonnello Montero

gloria.aline.colonnello.montero@stud.ki.se

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