Indoor Radon: A Case Study in Risk Communication

  • Stephen D. Page
    Address reprint requests to Mr. Page, Director, Radon Division, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 501 3rd Street, Judiciary Square, Washington, DC 20460.
    From the Radon Division, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC
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      Two key questions have influenced the development and implementation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program to reduce the public health risks of indoor radon gas; the answers may also apply to other preventive health care programs. First, how can we best communicate risk? Risk communication research indicates that simple message, persuasion, and prescriptive guidance will best encourage citizens to protect themselves from voluntary risks (within the control of the individual), such as radon. However, scientists expect technical information, logical and unemotional appeals, and detailed explanations of uncertainty. An appropriate balance between the persuasive and the technical will encourage public action and assuage the scientific community. Second, what environmental health care problems should we focus on? Public concern with involuntary risks imposed by an external force, such as hazardous waste dumps, drive our environmental health agenda. Consequently, because government decision-makers respond to public perceptions and pressures, which they frequently support, the largest fraction of the government’s resources and the most aggressive protection programs are typically reserved for environmental health problems that pose involuntary risks. The experience of the EPA’s Radon Program suggests that major gains in public health protection could be achieved through communication that effectively persuades people to accept personal responsibility for preventing voluntary risks, such as radon, and a more informed dialogue between the scientific community and the public concerning national priorities for environmental health protection. If we cannot accomplish this improved dialogue, we will continue to spend enormous sums of money pursuing involuntary risks that promise a smaller payoff for society than preventable voluntary risks, like smoking, failure to use seat belts, and radon exposure, which individuals can address.
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