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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

October 2018

Environmental health literacy empowers people, communities

A new book, 'Environmental Health Literacy,' examines this emerging field from the perspective of scientists and their community partners.

A newly published book is just one more way NIEHS delivers on its promise of a better understanding of how the world we live in can affect our health. “Environmental Health Literacy,” published in September by Springer, takes a deep dive into this emerging field by exploring environmental health literacy from the perspective of scientists and their community partners in research.

composite image of a book, lightbulb hovering above with leaf inside it EHL is the connection between knowing what is in your environment and the different ways it can affect your health.

A case definition

“Environmental health literacy, or EHL, is the connection between knowing what’s in your environment and understanding how it may affect your health,” said NIEHS Program Officer Symma Finn, Ph.D., who co-edited the book. “It’s not a static thing. It’s something that evolves over time and is usually linked with where you live or what you have been exposed to.”

portrait of Symma Finn Finn enjoyed working on this book with O’Fallon. “It was absolutely fantastic to work with Liam. Together, our thinking is much broader and more complex.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Finn’s co-editor was Liam O'Fallon, who leads the NIEHS Partnerships for Environmental Public Health (PEPH) Program, a network of scientists, community members, educators, and others. The partners share a goal of increasing the impact of environmental public health research.

O’Fallon shared an example. “If you have an asthmatic child, you might have very high levels of EHL for the types of things in our environment that can contribute to or worsen asthma symptoms,” he said. “But your understanding of a topic like lead in drinking water might be lower, if it isn’t something you’re exposed to.”

From Finn and O’Fallon’s point of view, the purpose of increasing EHL is to prevent illness by raising awareness of risks from environmental exposures and by providing steps that individuals and communities can take to avoid or reduce those exposures. This is the overall message of the book.

Are the messages getting through?

portrait of Liam O'Fallon “Symma was a huge driver behind making this book a reality. It was great working with her and with all the authors,” said Liam O’Fallon, program officer in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

“NIEHS has put much time and effort into engaging communities and translating science into different formats, but how well is that message being received?” O’Fallon asked. “We don’t currently have a tool to measure this.”

“We want to measure individual and community EHL to learn how best to intervene, to improve understanding, and ensure that risk messaging is geared to the level of understanding of specific audiences,” Finn added.

Many of the authors who wrote chapters for the book also emphasized that researchers must tailor their message to their target audience, by using culturally relevant risk messaging. For example, one chapter described the use of paintings of fish, done in the traditional style of tribes along the Great Lakes rather than using scientific illustrations. This approach enabled sharing information on the risks of contamination in a format consistent with the culture of these local tribes. Another chapter tells of translating infographics into Spanish or tribal languages to convey risks from gardening and from contaminated soils.

book cover of Environmental Health Literacy

Authors also shared examples of how this work empowered communities and built cultural awareness of researchers. For instance, during an air monitoring project, community residents and researchers raised their EHL by working collaboratively to create a network of 40 air monitors. Through a process of co-learning, researchers gained an awareness of the local knowledge, and residents gained scientific understanding that enabled them to select the optimal locations for the monitors.

In other words, the network validated the lived experience of the residents by enabling data to be collected on levels of air pollution that they knew existed.

A starting point

Both O’Fallon and Finn have high hopes for contributions this book will make to EHL and to communities. “I’d like to see research programs come out of this,” said Finn. “This book calls attention to the fact that more work is needed in the area of measuring EHL.”

“I hope that this stimulates a broader conversation on the science of EHL and ways to come up with measures and formalized approaches to explore the effectiveness of our messaging on environmental risks,” O’Fallon added. “The field of EHL is still emerging and publications on EHL are increasing. It is our hope that this book will further stimulate interest and research in this field.”

Citation: Finn S, O’Fallon L (Eds). 2018. Environmental Health Literacy. New York, NY: Springer.

(Sheena Scruggs, Ph.D., is the Digital Outreach Coordinator in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

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