Communities all over the world face challenges of assessing health risks from chemical contaminants and deciding whether cleanup efforts should be undertaken. While many environmental health scientists are researching toxicology, exposure assessment, epidemiology and risk assessment related to chemical exposures such as these, my research focuses on communications.
More specifically, I’m researching ways to improve communications about chemicals, their hazards, exposure to them and the health risks posed by such exposure. My goal is to find out what makes communications about chemicals useful, helpful and satisfactory to people who receive them.
It is important to note that satisfaction with communications about chemicals is different than satisfaction with exposure to chemicals—someone could be satisfied with the communications they have received and still be outraged about the exposure that is taking place! However, when people are dissatisfied with communications, it might be because the communications have not told them what they want to know, or have been difficult or confusing to process. Communications about chemicals are particularly challenging due to their technical nature and the constraints of scientific uncertainty, especially when it comes to health risks.
For my dissertation research, supported by a Risk Science Center Fellowship this summer, I’m collecting and analyzing data about satisfaction with information about dioxins among residents of Michigan’s Midland and Saginaw counties. Dioxins are a group of persistent chemical pollutants that are known or suspected of causing a variety of human health effects, including cancer.
Over the past decade or more, Midland/Saginaw county residents have received communications about dioxin contamination in their region from a variety of sources. For some examples, see the Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH), the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the City of Midland, newspapers, television and other media.
Another source of communications, both directly to individuals and more broadly, has been the University of Michigan Dioxin Exposure Study (UMDES), which studied pathways of dioxin exposure and measured dioxin levels in samples of participants’ blood, soil and house dust in 2004-2005. Participants could choose whether or not to receive their individual results, with most choosing to do so. The UMDES was not a health risk study. Overall results from the study were widely disseminated through public meetings, brochures (2006 and 2011) and the media.
Not much is known about what concepts residents take away from communications about environmental contamination in their communities. To investigate this, the Community Perceptions of Dioxins (CPOD) study (funded by National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) grant #1R01ES016306) is following up with both UMDES participants and non-participants. The CPOD study seeks to assess residents’ current mental models (mental conceptualizations) of dioxin exposure through open-ended qualitative interviews and a mailed survey questionnaire.
My dissertation research will be conducted as an addition to the CPOD study. I’ll be investigating whether residents’ satisfaction with the information they have received is related to their risk perceptions.
My hypothesis is that those who feel they are able to make subjective judgments about their health risk from dioxins (regardless of whether they think their risk is high or low) will be more satisfied with the communications they have received, and, conversely, those who are uncertain about their risk will be less satisfied. For further comparison, I’m also assessing perceptions of dioxins among participants in the UMDES “control” group, from Michigan’s Jackson and Calhoun counties.
My findings will have important implications for contexts beyond cases of community environmental contamination. If being able to judge health risk is important for satisfaction, then receivers of many communications about chemicals, such as those that take place under worker and community right-to-know frameworks, may need to be equipped with additional sources of information to make health risk judgments. Systems for making such information available could help make communications about chemicals more useful, helpful and satisfactory to people who receive them.
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