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IRG 3-3b: Environmental Risk Perception Survey
(Terre Satterfield, Barbara Harthorn, Gwen D’Arcangelis, Laura Devries, Shannon Hanna, Anton Pitts)
Co-funding: Primarily funded through the UC CEIN IRG 7, the team conducted research on environmental risk perception in a dually novel area (specific engineered nanomaterials—ENMs-- as nested in distinct perceptions of different environmental media). In order to accomplish this, the group completed a two-phase design of studying public perceptions of air, water, and soil alone (phase 1) and in interaction with ENMs (phase 2). This was accomplished using a mental models interview design (which seek lay theories of cause and effect, and lay intuitions about harm and safety). Findings from the interviews were then incorporated into a Stage 1 pilot survey instrument. Input from UC CEIN toxicologists and ecologists was used to determine which ENMs to focus on, to ensure scientific validity of the distinctions drawn among them, and to ensure instrument conformity to ecologists’ views of environmental media. The pilot survey results are currently in data analysis. A paper on the environmental values from the mental models research is in draft form for planned submission in Spring 2011 (D’Arcangelis et al.). Selective preliminary findings from the pilot survey on environmental risk perceptions of ENMs by a large pilot sample (n<800) of US public include:
- Reporting that ENMs are present in air, soil, and/or water leads to respondents scoring the ENMs as more difficult to detect and/or measure in the environment (i.e., to touch, feel, see, describe, measure, sample and test). Those who see ENMs as highly intangible are more likely to have higher risk ratings for some materials. Implications: The very idea of invisible and intangible materials appears to inspire some risk aversion, which might be problematic for science communication.
- Respondents with higher tested nanotech knowledge were consistently slightly more accepting of specific ENMs than those with little or no knowledge of nanotechnologies, though the differences are modest. Implications: Despite the above caveats, there is reason to be optimistic about the benefits of scientific literacy from science education & communication, although previous risk controversies have indicated that the knowledge benefit only holds true for risks in the absence of controversy.
- Respondents who rated the environmental media of air, water, and soil with and without added ENMs as more resilient (i.e., recovering easily from human impacts, self-cleaning over time, mostly pure, easy to control) also tended to see the benefits of various technologies as outweighing the risks, to accept specific nanotechnologies, and to agree with reassuring statements about environmental toxicology. Implications: Emerging UC CEIN and CEINT research about the actual resilience of environmental media to recover from impacts of ENMs will be salient information in the minds of some public groups, though better demographic distinction this way needs to be developed with a larger, more representative survey.
Planning and implementation of a stage 2 survey to a larger and more representative sample is planned for Spring-Fall 2011, with more specific ENMs for comparative risk assessment and life cycle features. The CNS IRG 3 collaboration with researchers in the UC CEIN offers an unprecedented opportunity for co-production of risk knowledge by scientists and societal researchers.