Essay on contaminated water

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Q IWA Publishing 2008 Journal of Water and Health | 06.S1 | 2008


Communicating effectively with vulnerable populations during water contamination events
Phyllis A. Nsiah-Kumi

Water contamination events are a public health concern worldwide with significant potential to impact the global community. When communicating with the public during these crisis situations, it is vital to consider the multiple audiences who receive the messages. Before developing or delivering messages to a particular community, it is essential to be familiar with the community’s characteristics, needs, concerns, and who is considered credible to that community.
Vulnerable populations are those with difficulties in comprehension or accessibility that may limit their full understanding of risks and may mitigate the effectiveness of public health strategies. Vulnerable populations include, but are not limited to, the urban/rural poor, those who

Phyllis A. Nsiah-Kumi
Northwestern University Feinberg School of
Division of General Internal Medicine,
Northwestern University, Chicago, IL 60611,
Tel.: +1 402 559 7415
Fax: +1 402 559 6113
Present address: Internal Medicine-Pediatrics,
984085 Nebraska Medical Center,
University of Nebraska Medical Center,
Omaha, NE 68198-4085,

are mentally ill, intellectually disabled, medically vulnerable, at the extremes of age (children and the elderly), racial/ethnic minorities, and those with low literacy or limited English proficiency.
A water contamination event poses a unique opportunity to work with diverse populations to effectively convey important health messages. Each population needs to receive appropriate public health messages. Becoming familiar with vulnerable populations and their needs prior to a water contamination event will help in identifying barriers and developing and refining effective messages in such a crisis. In water contamination crises, our publics’ health depends on effective, targeted crisis communication.
Key words

| communication, public health, targeted messages, vulnerable populations, water contamination events

Water contamination events are a public health concern

ongoing health concerns that they attribute to the event

worldwide. In 1988, the water supply of Camelford, North

(McMillan et al. 1993; Powell et al. 1995; Altmann et al. 1999;

Cornwall in the UK was accidentally contaminated with

Exley & Esiri 2006). In Bangladesh, over 20 million have been

aluminum sulfate when a substitute worker inadvertantly

exposed to drinking water contaminated with naturally

deposited the compound into the wrong tank at the water

occurring arsenic at levels over 50 mg/l (Smith et al. 2000).

treatment facility. Approximately 20,000 individuals were

In June 2007, radioactive water contamination was

exposed to aluminum, lead and other chemicals. Communi-

discovered at a nuclear power plant site in North Carolina.

cation about the event and the potential health risks was

The source of the contamination has not yet been identified.

fluctuating and, at times, contradictory and caused significant

However, the contamination is believed to be contained

concern among the citizens of that community. In addition to

within the confines of the plant, and local residents have been

the immediate health effects of the exposure, the health

reassured that there is no cause for concern (Snow 2007). In

impact of this event is potentially ongoing, as nearly two

situations like these, where the health of many is threatened

decades later many citizens of the community have

by water contamination, clear, timely communication

doi: 10.2166/wh.2008.041


P. A. Nsiah-Kumi | Communicating effectively with vulnerable populations

Journal of Water and Health | 06.S1 | 2008

regarding the nature of contaminants, potential risks to