Applying community resilience theory to engagement with residents facing cumulative environmental exposure risks: lessons from Louisiana's industrial corridor

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The presence of legacy pollutants, on-going chemical manufacturing activities, and population shifts have introduced complex, cumulative exposure risks to residents of many highly industrialized communities. These "industrial corridors" present unique challenges to environmental health science professionals, public and private sector decision makers, and residents seeking to make their communities safer and healthier. Social-ecological resilience theory offers a useful framework for the design and implementation of community engagement efforts to help stakeholders take action to reduce their exposure risks. A resilience framework views the human community as a coupled social-ecological system, wherein disturbances to the equilibrium of the system - acute and/or chronic - are common rather than rare events. It recognizes three key capacities of more resilient communities. These are the abilities of community members to self-organize to address changing threat levels, to hold scientifically sound understandings of the risks, and to learn from past experiences and take action - individually or collectively - to adapt to or mitigate the hazards in their local environment. We apply this resilience theory framework to a case study from Camp Minden, Louisiana, conducted through the Louisiana State University (LSU) Superfund Research Center's Community Engagement program and supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). The case illuminates a critical path by which resilience theory can be applied to guide bi-directional communication and information-gathering, and co-development of risk-reducing strategies at the community level. These are central elements of community engagement within a contentious, real-world setting. The three components of the resilience framework were supported by specific program mechanisms and activities. The capacity for self-organization among community stakeholders was furthered through the convening of a Dialogue Committee which brought together representatives of concerned residents, regulatory agencies, research scientists, and others. This collaborative problem-solving approach supported a more holistic and scientifically sound understanding of the problem through a series of interactive meetings in which members discussed site-remediation options with thermal-treatment experts and regulators, and shared how recent explosions and concerns about air quality affected them. The members co-developed selection criteria and reached consensus on two types of disposal methods that would best reduce the significant threats to public health and the local environment. We also include a brief summary of our recent randomized survey of over 550 residents of Louisiana's industrialized communities to determine the influences on household-level adaptive behaviors to reduce acute and chronic environmental exposure risks. The results of the logistic regression analysis indicate that residents with more concern and knowledge about environmental hazards, along with confidence in their ability to implement risk-reduction measures - such as checking air-quality forecasts and then limiting outside activities - were much more likely to adopt the exposure-reducing behaviors, even when controlling for socioeconomic and demographic differences among respondents. These findings shed light on the conditions under which residents of these types of communities may be more likely to take action to reduce potential environmental exposure risks, and may help in the design of public education efforts. These "lessons learned" from Louisiana communities facing cumulative environmental exposure risks suggest that application of resilience theory to the design and implementation of community engagement programs may support the longer-term effectiveness of the efforts and enhance overall environmental health resilience. In addition, they provide practical insights about how to operationalize and apply these theoretical concepts to real-world environmental health challenges faced by residents of industrialized communities throughout the world.

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Reviews on environmental health

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