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.
| 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
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