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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

July 2021

Better risk communication can reduce harmful exposures, experts say

At an NIEHS Superfund Research Program workshop, participants stressed the importance of community engagement and tailored messaging.

Sara Amolegbe Amolegbe supports SRP’s research translation and communication efforts. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)

NIEHS grantees, partners, and colleagues came together to discuss how they have engaged with local groups and communicated potential health risks to reduce exposures and improve health. Hosted by the NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) June 21-22, the online workshop(https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/conference/srp2021/index.cfm) drew more than 200 participants.

“It was exciting to hear from experts in risk communication and related social science fields, who explained new research on risk perception, social context, trust, and designing and evaluating social campaigns,” said SRP Health Specialist Sara Amolegbe, lead organizer of the workshop. “Our goal is to understand how to better tailor messages to communicate health and environmental risks to specific communities and empower them to reduce their exposures.”

The two-day workshop covered the following topics:

  • Engaging communities and promoting equity in risk communication.
  • Designing health messages for specific audiences and evaluating their impact.
  • Exploring the social context of risk perception.
  • Translating research into communication tools.

“At NIEHS, our vision is to provide global leadership to promote and translate data to knowledge that can protect human health,” said NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D. “SRP’s emphasis on community engagement provides valuable insight to design communication strategies that are sensitive to the cultural and social context of lived experiences.”

Working with tribal communities

Melissa Gonzales, Ph.D.(https://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/translational/peph/grantee-highlights/2018/index.cfm#a844654), from the University of New Mexico (UNM) SRP Center, described her team’s work with the Navajo Nation and Laguna Pueblo to bridge Indigenous learning models with western research methods.

“The traditional concept of restoring balance in the body informed our approach to communicating about the Thinking Zinc clinical trial to protect against the harmful effects of uranium and arsenic exposure from legacy mines,” she said.

The team worked with community members and cultural specialists, using Navajo language and Native imagery to convey scientific concepts appropriately for their audience.

“By co-developing and sharing a conceptual framework, we are creating new models and a new language to promote understanding and improve health.”

broken strand of beads that looks like dna strand Gonzales explained how repairing DNA damage is like re-stringing a broken strand of beads, as in this acrylic painting by Mallery Quetawki, who served as artist-in-residence at the UNM Center for Native Environmental Health Equity Research iin 2017. (Image courtesy Mallery Quetawki, Zuni Pueblo)

Elisabeth Middleton, Ph.D., from the University of California (UC), Davis SRP Center, shared her group’s experience collaborating with the Yurok Tribe.

“Bi-directional learning from our partners allows us to understand the value of traditional practices and how those may contribute to unique routes of exposure,” she said. “It is important to balance those perspectives when talking about risk, so we share all our findings with the community and interpret those results together.”

Environmental justice

“One size doesn’t fit all,” said Monica Ramirez-Andreotta, Ph.D., from the University of Arizona SRP Center. “We need to address intersectionality in research and communication projects so people can participate and use information equitably, regardless of differences in education, income, language, or race.”

Paul Watson, Jr., president of the Global Action Research Center and a UC San Diego SRP Center community partner, discussed a community engagement approach that focuses on including voices normally left out of decision-making.

“We set up Ocean View Growing Grounds as a community research and learning hub in a low-income community to serve two purposes,” he explained. “It is a community garden in the middle of a food desert to increase access to nutritious food. In addition, researchers can work directly with residents to study the soil and plant tissues for contaminants and share those findings, along with related health impacts, through community events and workshops.”

Julia Brody, Ph.D., from the Silent Spring Institute and Northeastern University SRP Center, discussed her team’s smartphone tool, called DERBI (Digital Exposure Report-Back Interface), which reports individual research results back to postpartum women in Puerto Rico participating in their study. She explained how community stakeholders provided input to optimize the design, and how it has been tailored to meet the needs of different audiences in other studies.

“Knowledge is power,” she said. “Communities have a right to know what we know about their exposures and health, and a right to act on that information.”

“It’s great to see these tools that can help people understand their exposures and put them into context,” said Lindsey Martin, Ph.D., an NIEHS health scientist administrator and workshop session moderator.

“This was an excellent opportunity for people to come together, share ideas and practical risk communication tips, and learn from each other,” said Amolegbe. “We’re compiling all the great resources and tools from the meeting, and we’re excited to keep the momentum going.”

(Natalie Rodriquez and Adeline Lopez are communication specialists for MDB Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Superfund Research Program.)


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