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Risk Communication for Environmental Exposure

a PSC Research Project

Investigators:   Brian J. Zikmund-Fisher, Frederick G. Conrad, Alfred Franzblau

High levels of dioxin were found in the Tittabawassee River flood plain, downriver from the Dow chemical company and in Midland Michigan, home of the Dow Chemical Company. In response to concerns among the population of Midland and Saginaw counties that dioxin-like compounds from the Dow Chemical Company facilities were the source of the high levels of Dioxin, the University of Michigan was asked by Dow Chemical Company to undertake a study of dioxin, furan and coplanar PCB exposure. The study, named the University of Michigan Dioxin Exposure Study (UMDES), focused on assessment of exposure to dioxin, furan and coplanar PCBs among residents of these communities. Communication activities with the UMDES focused on feeding back results of the exposure assessment study, but, given that the study was not an exposure and health effects study, the investigators did not include communication of health risks associated with dioxin exposure as part of their feedback to community members and study participants.



The situation in Midland is not unique to the state of Michigan. In recent years, a growing number of communities have learned of the exposure of certain parts of their communities to the presence of dioxin and/or other toxic chemicals in soil and/or groundwater. Communities in the U.S. (e.g, in Michigan, Louisiana, Georgia) and internationally (e.g. New Zealand) have initiated studies to assess the exposure of residents of their community to dioxin contaminants. Often these chemicals have been labeled as a carcinogen (such as the dioxin like chemical 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin or TCDD, that has been labeled a known carcinogen by the EPA while several others have been labeled as probable carcinogens), which lead to health concerns among residents of areas where these chemicals are found. Yet, given the uncertainty of health risks from dioxin and other chemical exposures and methodological limitations in assessing dose-response patters, community-level exposure assessment studies rarely explore health risk assessment, thus limiting feedback to information about the exposure assessment itself and not the health risks associated with the exposure.



Little is known about how community members and participants in these studies process the study results from the exposure assessment studies and what, if any are the intended or un-intended behavioral responses to the information received. Further, little research has been done on the individual characteristics that might influence how the information is received and acted upon. This study, building on the University of Michigan Dioxin Exposure Study (UMDES) seeks to assess what meaning people have taken from their involvement in a dioxin exposure assessment study, including their perceptions of risk, and how participation may have induced changes in behavior (whether appropriate or inappropriate). Specifically we hope to: 1) examine comprehension, retention, and risk perception of key messages, and change in behavior among residents who participated in a dioxin exposure assessment study and a control population who did not, all from the Midland and Saginaw counties in Michigan; and 2) explore the mediating and/or moderating effects of health literacy, attitudinal, geographic, and personal characteristics on the relationship between exposure to message and the comprehension, retention, risk perception, and change in behavior of both participants who participated in a dioxin exposure assessment study and a control population.

Funding Period: 07/16/2009 to 06/30/2012

Country of Focus: USA

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