Environmental Health Literacy – Key to Unlocking a Safer Future (Part 1)

October 27th, 2016 | Viewpoint


Who, What, and Where is the Risk?

The 2015 media spotlight on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan drew public attention to what had been decades of silent exposure to lead in drinking water that had been poisoning children without the knowledge of residents.

This is but one tragic example of the harm that arises from unsafe water, air, or land.  Disparities in asthma cases are also affected by environmental conditions. Asthma rates have been on the rise, with the greatest impact on black children who are more than twice as likely as white children to have asthma. Air pollution can trigger serious asthma attacks. Additionally, there is growing evidence that links exposure to environmental pollutants to the risk of getting asthma.

Need for Useful Information

Environmental exposures are largely unseen. To protect their health and community, people require access to basic health information and information about the neighborhood they live in. This is a challenge when those with the greatest exposures face language and literacy barriers often coupled with limited formal education.

Large chemical disasters and waste sites have led to laws, such as the 1986 Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. The Act has meant that a wealth of data has been gathered about toxic chemical storage and release in U.S. communities. However, these highly technical data are only useful for those who know it exists, how to get it, and how to understand and use it.

Importance of Environmental Health Literacy

Recent studies have concluded that health literacy is an important social determinant of health that contributes to disparities. Health literacy is defined by the US DHHS as ”the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions and services needed to prevent or treat illness.” Beyond the ability to read, being health literate requires analytical and decision-making skills, and the ability to apply these skills to health situations.

To date, health literacy has mostly focused on promoting understanding of how to navigate healthcare and self-manage one’s health conditions. To truly advance prevention, the relationship between the environment and health should also be made widely accessible — particularly within under-served communities. Appropriate knowledge to reduce and avoid exposures is essential. The information needs to be relevant and tailored to language, culture and literacy levels of the affected populations.

This fits an emerging definition of environmental health literacy, which, according to Christina Zarcadoolas, of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, comprises ”the range of skills and abilities that enable people to understand the information needed to lessen environmental risk and take positive individual and corrective actions.”

Written by Terry Greene

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