Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Closing the Research Loop: A Risk-Based Approach for Communicating Results of Air Pollution Exposure Studies

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Closing the Research Loop: A Risk-Based Approach for Communicating Results of Air Pollution Exposure Studies

Article excerpt

Communities have long been concerned about the environmental health and environmental quality of their neighborhoods. Community-based exposure assessments have the potential to be an effective way to address these concerns. The success of such studies depends critically on the effective translation and communication of study results back to the study participants and the community. In this article we describe the communication approach applied as part of the South Baltimore Community Exposure Study. Specifically, in conjunction with collecting measurements, we asked the community to define questions they wanted answered and the way in which they wanted to receive study results. To meet their needs, we applied the risk assessment framework. The approach we developed helped residents interpret exposure assessment measurements and gave them the raw materials to effect change in their community. The risk-based approach to presenting participant and community results provides the means to move beyond traditional reporting of concentration values in three important ways. First, risk takes into consideration toxicity, thereby enabling a dialogue about community health concerns. Second, risk provides a common denominator so that exposure and risk can be compared and priorities identified. Third, exposure and risk can be summed, thereby meeting the community's need for information regarding cumulative exposure. This approach may be a useful model for other researchers conducting exposure assessments in response to community concerns. Key words: personal exposure monitoring, risk communication, urban communities, volatile organic compounds.

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Exposure assessment has the potential to be an effective way to address community environmental health concerns. Communities can use exposure assessments to a) inform residents about their environmental exposure levels and the sources of those exposures, b) suggest strategies for exposure reduction, and c) enhance the level of substantive dialogue with government policy officials. Although exposure scientists are well trained at reporting human exposure results in peer-reviewed journals (e.g., describing the magnitude, frequency, and duration of exposure; comparing personal exposure monitoring, indoor, and outdoor measurements; evaluating the efficacy of a new measurement technique), this mode of communicating and interpreting results may not address the health-based concerns and information needs of the community. Indeed, community-based studies generate an obligation on the part of the researcher to ensure that participants and the community obtain the information necessary to address their concerns (Israel et al. 1998; Leviton et al. 1998; Metzler et al. 2003; Ng and Hamby 1997; Schulte and Sweeney 1995; Weed and McKeown 2003). Just as in the clinical setting, where the role of communication of results to individual patients "is not to ensure that the 'correct' decision is made, but rather to ensure that the patient has the correct inputs to decision making" (Deck and Kosatsky 1999), in the community setting the role of communication of results is to inform and empower. Human exposure assessment conducted within communities solely for research purposes is likely to leave residents dissatisfied and without the information they need to effect change on a local level. This issue is often raised in an environmental justice context as well (Wakefield 2003).

Effective communication and translation of research facilitate the community's ability to credibly represent the study's implications to policy makers and other stakeholders, thereby closing the loop between science and the community. This builds the foundation for long-term collaborations between communities and research institutions. These collaborations are increasingly required by funding agencies such as the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences' community-based participatory research grants and the U. …

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