Environmental factor – November 2021: scientists design risk communication strategies to improve health


Amolegbe facilitates communication of the scientific achievements of SRP grantees and provides support to improve the translation of program results to a wider audience. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)

By better understanding and connecting with communities, researchers can tailor messages, tools and campaigns to effectively communicate environmental risks and improve public health, experts say. Drawing on their experience of sharing this information with various groups, researchers from across the United States discussed the successes, challenges and recommendations during recent e-learning risk webinars hosted by the NIEHS Superfund. Research Program (SRP).

“This webinar series builds on a previous SRP workshop on risk communication efforts, allowing us to delve deeper into the themes and discussions that emerged,” said Sara Amolegbe, SRP health specialist. “It was exciting to learn more about how these experts engaged communities to build trust and translate their research into tangible products that meet the needs of their specific audiences. “

Each session of the four-part series, which ran from late September to October, attracted more than 400 participants from academia, industry, government, and tribal and community groups.

Understand communities and tailor messages

“Raising awareness of harmful environmental exposures and promoting inclusive dialogue on risk reduction strategies – two central elements of risk communication – have the potential to improve health, especially in our most vulnerable communities. “, said Kathleen Gray, Ph.D., from the SRP Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).

Gray, joined by colleagues at UNC Sarah Yelton and Megan Rodgers, explained how they organized focus groups and community meetings to understand existing beliefs and perceptions regarding fish consumption or water consumption from wells containing potentially harmful contaminants. They assessed the comments to better identify effective messaging strategies for developing environmental health literacy.

bj cummings Cummings is the author of The River That Made Seattle: A Human and Natural History of the Duwamish, which was highlighted in this August 2020 environmental factor article. (Photo courtesy of Steve Shay)

“The way you phrase a message can elicit different reactions depending on the audience,” said James Dearing, Ph.D., Michigan State University SRP Center. “Designing communication strategies for complex problems requires understanding the knowledge, attitudes and behavior of the audience. “

Dearing noted that in the context of climate change, for example, people respond positively when imagery and language emphasize community health.

bj cummings and Lisa Hayward, Ph.D., from the University of Washington SRP Center, discussed their efforts to effectively communicate the risks of fishing in the Duwamish River, which has been contaminated with sewage and toxic chemicals and has been listed as a Superfund site in 2001. The team organized community events in different languages ​​and developed multilingual videos promote safe salmon fishing.

“This webinar has helped me understand that we really need time to produce usable communication and public awareness materials,” said one participant.

Building trust to promote fairness and justice

“Disasters frequently disproportionately affect the most vulnerable groups, exacerbating existing inequalities and injustices and contributing to stress, which can be a barrier to risk communication,” said Sharon Croissant, Ph.D., Baylor College of Medicine SRP Center. “It is important to plan risk communication strategies for disaster preparedness and response well in advance of these events, and this requires building trust and engaging with affected populations.

Croissant explained that to build trust, communication strategies must be transparent, foster self-reliance and recognize uncertainties. She also insisted on involving respected members of the community to ensure that interventions are culturally and contextually appropriate. Earning the trust of respected community leaders can also be leveraged to help demonstrate the validity and sincerity of the efforts of external researchers to the wider community.

Rachel Morello-Frosch, Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley SRP Center, discussed its work to develop digital tools that inform strategies for reducing harmful exposures and promoting environmental justice. Examples included Toxic tides, which is an online mapping interface that helps users assess the potential effects of sea level rise and coastal flooding on disadvantaged communities.

Social and health vulnerability ABAG regional score for some counties in CA

Morello-Frosch and its partners are developing mapping tools such as the Environmental justice selection method, which identifies areas disproportionately affected by a mix of chemical pollutants and social stressors. (Image courtesy of Rachel Morello-Frosch)

“Working with vulnerable groups, such as Native American communities, requires two-way communication strategies that value traditional knowledge and experiences,” said Esther Erdei, Ph.D., from the SRP Center at the University of New Mexico.

Erdei described his team’s work in using the Navajo language and Indigenous imagery to convey scientific concepts, which involved working with tribal members and cultural specialists.

“The research and community engagement supported by SRP contributes significantly to the process of reconciliation and healing among communities exposed to hazardous substances,” said Erdei.

(Mali Velasco is a research and communications specialist for MDB Inc., an entrepreneur for the NIEHS Superfund research program.)


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