Psychosocial stress due to environmental and health concerns – What should be our risk communication research agenda?

Author: Will Rifkin – University of Newcastle, Australia

Kathy Witt – University of Queensland

How can risk communication keep a population informed but not unnecessarily alarmed? How does one obtain the authorisation from government and industry – and the personal confidence as a science communicator – to provide levels of transparency that are increasingly sought by communities, the media, and other stakeholders? The focus of this ‘idea in progress’ discussion is on what research can help to answer these questions.

Consider recent cases of concern about possible environmental and health effects from – the fire-fighting foam referred to as ‘PFAS’, development of natural gas from onshore reservoirs in North America, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, and construction of wind farms.

Concerns of nearby residents can be traced to distrust of large corporations, distrust of government agencies, perceived lack of transparency, domains where the science is not perceived to be definitive – even though it may suggest little or no impact, and feelings of disenfranchisement.

In these instances, a growing body of literature suggests a rise in psychosocial stress among concerned residents in nearby communities. Some in government, industry, and the community see stress as being the predominant, near-term, health impact. Stress can increase the body’s allostatic load, which then contributes to the development of cardiovascular disease and other ailments.

Psychosocial stress can be exacerbated if residents are experiencing a boom-bust economic cycle and if they feel that they are living in a ‘contaminated’ zone, which suggests that their home may have lost its value, creating financial stress for the family. Additionally, hostility and distrust in communities can incur stress, defensiveness, and increased turnover among community liaison staff from industry or government. That can exacerbate levels of stress experienced in the community, a sort of vicious cycle.

With such a wicked problem for risk communication, what should be key elements of our research agenda?

The author has not yet submitted a copy of the full paper.

Presentation type: Idea in progress
Theme: Society
Area of interest: Building a theoretical basis for science communication