Environmental Risk Communication: An Essential To Assessing Stakeholder Concerns

Thursday, April 1, 2004 - 01:00

Ronald E. Gots, M.D., Ph.D.


Since the field of environmental risk communication began its evolution in the early 1980s, debates have raged over what the public wants and needs to know and how to involve, effectively, an increasingly distressed populace. Social scientists argue that health concerns play a minor role in public distress and that communicators who ignore the emotional impact of environmental dangers do so at their peril. Sandman1 has called these emotional aspects "outrage" and has done, I believe, an effective job of raising our consciousness regarding this public motivator. Witness the fact that "outrage" has become a regular component of the communicator's lexicon.

While the emotional aspects (termed "indignation") of an environmental concern can be important, or even paramount, they are by no means always central. Situations exist in which health concerns predominate, while indignation (Sandman's "outrage") is minor.

For example, a fuel tank farm facility or a hazardous waste site in the neighborhood provokes indignation: here, health concerns are, indeed, secondary. By contrast, electric power lines overhead or a sudden release of a chemical from a plant, or cyanide contamination of Tylenol, or benzene contamination of Perrier water primarily generate health concerns. In these instances, the consuming public was (or, is) more worried about health than being indignant at the situation.

Understanding these distinctions - whether indignation or health concerns form the central core of public distress - is essential to the institution of an effective dialogue. Bringing health data into a forum dominated by indignation can be counterproductive. In such situations, dealing with the indignation must come first. However, when health worries form the nidus of community concerns, those must be addressed first. In recent years, the beam has focused so intensely on the indignation issue that we, at times, forget to recognize which concerns predominate - health or indignation.

Weighing Indignation Against Health Concerns

Table 1 provides a tool by which the communicator can balance these public motivators - health or indignation. Health concerns, shown across the top of the matrix (X axis) range in severity from none to panic, and are denoted in rank order of severity from 1 to 4, respectively.Indignation, shown down the side of the matrix, (Y axis) moves along a continuum from none to outrage, and is denoted in rank order from A to D, respectively.Sandman refers to this entire continuum as "outrage." Outrage may be viewed as the most severe degree of indignation. Since the context of environmental risks and perceptions varies greatly, it is important to categorize public perceptions in this fashion and to attempt to find the matrix block which best represents the situation at hand. This enables the proper framing of interactions and messages and the use of the most appropriate communicators. 1Sandman, PM: Explaining Environmental Risk, Washington, DC, USS EPA, Office of Toxic Substances, 1986.
Sandman, PM: "Responding to Community Outrages: Strategies for Effective Risk Communication." Fairfax, VA, American Industrial Hygiene Association, 1993.

Ronald E. Gots, M.D., Ph.D., is CEO of the International Center for Toxicology and Medicine ictm1rticle may be addressed to him at (301) 519-0300 or info@ictm.com.