Arsenic and community risk reduction

Proposed Project

Dartmouth Superfund Basic Research Program, Community Engagement Core:
Actionable Two-Way Communication Using a Mental Models Approach

Duration and funding source: 5 years (April 2013 – March 2018); Proposed to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

Personnel: M. Borsuk (Project Leader), M. Paul (Project Coordinator) (Dartmouth)

Synopsis: The goal of the Community Engagement Core (CEC) of the Dartmouth Superfund Basic Research Program is to build bi-directional partnerships with diverse communities in Northern New England to enhance their ability to understand and address the health risks posed by arsenic and mercury. We are proposing to accomplish this goal by working closely with target communities, community-serving organizations, and a Community Engagement Advisory Board (CEAB) to identify each community’s needs with respect to science, education, information, and expertise. We will focus on four specific communities in Northern New England: (1) private drinking water well owners, (2) consumers of food products of concern, (3) parents and expectant parents, and (4) science students at high schools located near Superfund sites. Additionally, we plan to formally partner with four sets of respected community-serving organizations with whom the Dartmouth SRP already has informal working relations. These include: the Town Managers of Raymond and Derry, NH; the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society; the Northern New England Perinatal Quality Improvement Network (NNEPQIN); and the Schoodic Education Research Center (SERC) Institute. Our underlying premise is that we can have a greater and more sustained impact on public health outcomes by building the capacity of existing community-serving organizations while at the same time communicating directly with community members themselves.

Our foundational method of community engagement is the mental models approach. This technique begins by establishing a graphical representation of expert scientific knowledge regarding the causes and consequences of an environmental health risk, against which the elicited beliefs of community members are then compared. Gaps or misconceptions on the part of the community are thus revealed and used as a basis for developing the structure and content of subsequent risk messaging. Similarly, community concerns previously overlooked by scientists are used to motivate relevant research and data collection. In this way, the explicit mental models serve as a kind of boundary object that serves to mediate communication and translation of ideas across scientific disciplines and between expert and lay participants in the process of community risk reduction.

We see the role of the CEC as not only to reveal the information needs and research priorities of our target communities, but also to assist our partner organizations in building capacity to carry out their mission as it pertains to community awareness and reduction of risk.