224583 Too many questions, too few answers: Understanding the role of uncertainty in coping with a slow-motion technological disaster

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mei-Chen Lin, PhD , School of Communication Studies, Kent State University, Kent, OH
Rebecca J. W. Cline, PhD , School of Communication Studies, Kent State University, Kent, OH
Jeffrey T. Child, PhD , School of Communication Studies, Kent State University, Kent, OH
Tanis Hernandez, MSW , Center for Asbestos Related Disease, Libby, MT
S. Roxanne Hall, MA , School of Communication Studies, Kent State University, Kent, OH
Kathryn B. Golson, BA , School of Communication Studies, Kent State University, Kent, OH
Jason D. Sabo, BA , School of Communication Studies, Kent State University, Kent, OH
Lisa Berry-Bobovski, MA , Communication and Behavioral Oncology Program, Karmanos Cancer Institute, Detroit, MI
Ann G. Schwartz, PhD, MPH , Population Sciences, Karmanos Cancer Institute, Detroit, MI
John C. Ruckdeschel, MD , Nevada Cancer Institute, Las Vegas, NV
Background: Widespread amphibole-asbestos exposure in Libby, Montana created what EPA called the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history (>300 deaths; hundreds with asbestos-related disease (ARD). Like Love Canal, Libby represents “a different kind of disaster” (Levine, 1982). Slow-motion technological disasters (SMTDs) are characterized by slow-onset and lengthy indeterminate duration. Significance: SMTDs are on the rise. Nearly half of the U.S. population lives within a 10-mile radius of designated/proposed Superfund sites. Current community/agency disaster-response models based on rapid-onset disasters do not apply well to SMTDs. Little is known about factors mitigating/exacerbating psychosocial responses to SMTDs. Communication theory and research suggest that uncertainty plays a key role in victims' responses: managing uncertainty is critical to efficacious coping methods. Purpose: Guided by Problematic Integration Theory (PI; Babrow), we investigated the nature, sources, and dynamics of uncertainty and its management among Libby, MT residents and associated psychosocial responses. Methods: Nine focus groups and five interviews (n = 71) were conducted in Libby with people with ARD, family members of people with ARD, and people with no ARD in their families. Results: Communication surrounding the disaster is characterized by rampant and dynamic uncertainty across a wide array of sources (e.g., agencies, media, community members) and issues (e.g., disease causes/progression, disaster's magnitude, current children's safety). Attempts to manage uncertainty create new uncertainties. Residents' uncertainty experiences are associated with particular disaster-related coping methods and resulting psychosocial outcomes. Conclusion: Understanding the sources, dynamics of uncertainty and its management in SMTDs may facilitate more effective community/agency responses to SMTDs.

Learning Areas:
Assessment of individual and community needs for health education
Communication and informatics
Environmental health sciences
Social and behavioral sciences

Learning Objectives:
1. Discuss the significance of uncertainty in disaster responses. 2. Describe the unique contributions of Problematic Integration Theory to explaining the nature, dynamics, and role(s) of uncertainty in slow-motion technological disasters versus natural disasters. 3. Discuss the impact of disaster-related uncertainty on community residents’ psychosocial responses to SMTDs.

Keywords: Communication, Disasters

Presenting author's disclosure statement:

Qualified on the content I am responsible for because: I am the Principal Investigator for the larger project on which the present study is based.
Any relevant financial relationships? No

I agree to comply with the American Public Health Association Conflict of Interest and Commercial Support Guidelines, and to disclose to the participants any off-label or experimental uses of a commercial product or service discussed in my presentation.