Abstract of Meeting Paper

Society for Risk Analysis-Europe 1997 Annual Meeting

Perceptions of Risks to Health from Industrial Air Pollution -- A High Priority? J. Bush and S. Moffatt, Department of Epidemiology & Public Health Medical School, Framlington Place, Newcastle upon Tyne, England NE2 4HH, fax 0191 222 8211, e-mail judith.bush@ncl.ac.uk or s.m.moffatt@ncl.ac.uk; and C. Dunn, Department of Geography, University of Durham, England

This paper discusses ongoing research aimed at exploring how risks to health from air pollution are prioritised among five communities living at varying distances from heavy industry.

Our study builds upon a detailed epidemiological study into the health effects of industrial air pollution in two conurbations in north-east England, Teesside and Sunderland. The former is characterised by Britain's largest steel and petro-chemical complex with over 12,000 people living within one kilometre of industry; the latter was dominated, until recently, by deep coal mining and ship building but with populations living distant from these industries. This recently completed study has highlighted considerable concern among some, but not all, of these communities, about the potentially harmful effects of air pollution on health (TEES Group, 1995).

The present study aims to examine - in-depth - public perceptions of the risks to health from air pollution. In particular it aims to gain insight into the ways in which risks from air pollution are prioritised in relation to other matters of everyday concern; and to examine the ways in which individuals cope with risks relating to air pollution within an everyday context. The research will also explore public awareness of, and access to, air quality information and health advice, and the social, cultural and localised contexts within which individuals and communities make sense of information relating to air quality. Local Authority policy on air quality bulletins differs in our two study areas; whilst Teesside produce regular local air quality bulletins through different media, Sunderland provide no such information.

The study, which began in October 1996, incorporates two complementary research methods: a postal questionnaire survey of 5000 adults living in Teesside and Sunderland, followed by in-depth one to one and focus group interviews with a sub sample of respondents. The survey will provide useful counts of, for example, how many in the sample have experienced air pollution, how people rate different risks and how many have heard about or acted upon air quality information and advice. The responses will be analysed by locality, age, sex, socioeconomic status and presence or absence of respiratory illness. By talking to people and allowing them to speak in their own way, using their own words, the qualitative stage of the research will then go on to provide more detailed insights into people's perceptions of air quality and health and the complex, interacting processes which are responsible for shaping these perceptions.

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