Kathleen Gray, UNC Institute for the Environment’s associate director for outreach and public service, recently published a paper in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. In this paper, she proposes a new way to consider how individuals and communities make decisions to reduce or eliminate harmful environmental exposures, such as consumption of contaminated well water or fish. The article is the first publication from a larger study that seeks to understand how educators communicate risks associated with consumption of contaminated fish.
“Environmental health literacy is a new framework for thinking about how people use environmental data to make health-protective decisions,” said Gray. “In the literature, there is discussion of the environmental health knowledge needed to make such decisions, but limited emphasis on the behavioral aspects of decision-making.”
She proposes that self-efficacy, or an individual’s belief in their ability to take action and achieve a desired outcome, is an important factor influencing individual and community behaviors.
“The idea behind fostering environmental health literacy is to facilitate decisions that create healthier lives,” Gray said. “Ultimately, we want people to be able to use research that is coming out of UNC-Chapel Hill to make decisions that protect their health. As a society, we potentially can reduce health effects from environmental exposures if we are able to access scientific information, understand it, and apply it in our lives.”
Within IE, Gray is applying this framework to strengthen her team’s work with communities. In one example, working with private well owners who are concerned about toxic metals contamination, Gray and colleagues are looking for ways to effectively communicate results of well testing.
“Prior research and our experience have shown that reporting of these test results tends to be too technical,” says Gray. She has been working with colleagues to develop more visually oriented communications, and they are testing them with private well owners to find out whether they result in increased understanding and facilitate decision-making.
Through this work, Gray’s team hopes to help private well owners develop stronger environmental health literacy so they can take action to protect themselves if there is toxic contamination in their well water. Once an individual takes a protective action, such as filtering their water, Gray notes that results of other studies suggest this decision could extend to the community level, meaning they may explore where the contamination is coming from and participate in collective action to remove or reduce it. “Some environmental exposures can’t be dealt with unless they are addressed at the community level,” she said.
Another consideration discussed in Gray’s article is the resources needed to facilitate community change. “We cannot just assume everyone can develop environmental health literacy, though I would hope they could. Some individuals and communities may require additional support and resources to address harmful environmental exposures,” she said.
Gray recently earned her Ph.D. in science education from NC State University. Her dissertation, Characterizing Environmental Health Literacy Related to Fish Consumption Advisories: Knowledge and Beliefs of Informal Educators in a Southeastern State, explored how educators communicated the environmental health risks of eating contaminated fish to fishermen, their families, and other public audiences. The findings suggested a number of ways that such communication could be strengthened, and Gray plans to continue collaborating with colleagues at NCSU and in state agencies, local governments and environmental nonprofits to improve this communication.