Experts: Clarity, trust key in crisis

Letting people know what risks they face after a disaster takes not only reliable science, but also the ability to inform them in a way they can understand and trust, according to speakers at a conference Tuesday at LSU.

Scientists, nonprofit groups and agency representatives met at the university to talk about response, recovery and resilience in the wake of disasters like hurricanes or oil spills.

Part of that discussion centered on how risk from pollution can be calculated and the findings relayed to people during and after a disaster. That includes not only taking air, water and soil samples, but also trying to determine if there’s a way that people could be exposed to whatever is found, said Kim Anderson, Oregon State University professor of environmental and molecular toxicology.

“If we don’t have an exposure, we don’t necessarily have risk,” she said. “We’re trying to relate exposure to effect.”

Using passive monitoring devices, equipment that picks up whatever is in the air or water, the samples collected should reflect any potential mix of chemicals that may be present, which can be used to test fish to see if there are biological impacts from the levels of chemicals found, she said.

“You aren’t exposed to one chemical at a time. We’re exposed to a whole mixture of chemicals,” she said.

However, some speakers said that even when you have reliable science, if people don’t trust the source, it doesn’t do much good.

Daniel Nguyen, project director and environmental justice coordinator with Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corp., said that’s a problem his group ran into during the 2010 oil disaster.

He said Vietnamese and Southeast Asian fishermen make up a third of all the shrimping vessels along the Gulf Coast, and there were heavy effects and concerns about the safety of shrimp.

Nguyen said 600 community members were asked how they could get information and who they could trust to get them information. The response showed the most common and trusted source of information for people was close friends. In addition, when people were asked who they trusted more to understand the effects of the oil leak, 76 percent said they trusted people in the community and only 36 percent said scientists.

When asked why, Nguyen said, people said, “We’re the ones going out there and cleaning it up, and we’ve been in the seafood industry all our lives.”

However, there was more trust in community-based participatory research where the community gets input and buy-in about what is researched, he said.

Community leaders participated in a study of shrimp safety, which found that the observed levels of hydrocarbons were well below state or federally mandated safety levels, Nguyen said. However, by that time, the community already had decided the seafood was safe, and it seemed it would do more harm than good to release those results, he said.

Instead, researchers and the community decided to expand the research to determine whether there was longer-term human and fishery effects.

Nguyen provided suggestions from his organization’s experiences with the 2010 oil leak, including the need to work with community members, hiring local people to help and giving communities part ownership of any information collected.