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Your Environment. Your Health.

Publication Detail

Title: Realities of environmental toxicity and their ramifications for community engagement.

Authors: Clapp, Justin T; Roberts, Jody A; Dahlberg, Britt; Berry, Lee Sullivan; Jacobs, Lisa M; Emmett, Edward A; Barg, Frances K

Published In Soc Sci Med, (2016 Dec)

Abstract: Research on community responses to environmental toxicity has richly described the struggles of citizens to identify unrecognized toxins, collect their own environmental health facts, and use them to lobby authorities for recognition and remediation. Much of this literature is based on an empiricist premise: it is concerned with exploring differences in how laypeople and experts perceive what is presumed to be a singular toxic reality that preexists these varying perspectives. Here, we seek to reexamine this topic by shifting the focus from facts to facticity-that is, by exploring the many types of knowledge that communities develop about toxicity and how these knowledges articulate with the ideas of scientific and governmental authorities about what kinds of information are valid bases for policymaking. In making this shift, we are influenced by work in semiotic anthropology and science and technology studies (STS), which emphasizes that lived experience generates distinct realities rather than different perceptions of the same underlying state. Using this framework, we present an analysis of oral history interviews conducted in 2013-14 in the small American town of Ambler, Pennsylvania. Part of Ambler's legacy as a nineteenth- and twentieth-century center of asbestos manufacture is that it is home to two massive asbestos-containing waste sites, one of which was being remediated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at the time of this study. Our interviews demonstrate that even asbestos, a toxin with a well-established public narrative, is a fundamentally different object for different members of the Ambler community. For many of these individuals, the epistemology and practices of the EPA are incongruent with or tangential to their toxicity-related experiences and their consequent concerns for the future. As such, our findings suggest caution in framing the community engagement efforts of environmental health agencies primarily as facilitations of citizen science; this approach does not acknowledge the multiplicity of toxic realities.

PubMed ID: 27783970 Exiting the NIEHS site

MeSH Terms: Aged; Aged, 80 and over; Community Participation/psychology*; Community Participation/statistics & numerical data; Environmental Pollutants/adverse effects; Environmental Pollutants/toxicity*; Female; Hazardous Substances/adverse effects; Hazardous Substances/toxicity; Humans; Male; Middle Aged; Pennsylvania; Public Health/standards; Public Health/statistics & numerical data; Risk Assessment/standards

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