Assessing PFAS Risk: Talking to Stakeholders

Assessing PFAS Risk: Talking to Stakeholders
The complex­i­ties of PFAS cont­a­m­i­na­tion have created an immediate need for sound, proven risk commu­ni­ca­tion strategies.  

Our under­stand­ing of the “forever chemicals” collec­tively referred to as PFAS has greatly increased, but the scientific community is still actively inves­ti­gat­ing the mechanisms behind fate and transport, determining the levels of toxicity, and cate­go­riz­ing thousands of compounds under the PFAS umbrella.

Now, the latest Health Advisory Levels announced by EPA have increased the need for effective risk commu­ni­ca­tion around PFAS. Health advisories for the two most notorious analytes, PFOA and PFOS, have been lowered below what can currently be detected, and two commonly used substitutes for those compounds, GenX and PFBS, now have advisories of their own. The public now has two major takeaways: PFAS is everywhere, and a very miniscule amount seems to be tied to adverse health effects. As a result, it's more critical than ever for water providers to engage in effective risk commu­ni­ca­tion.

What makes for effective risk commu­ni­ca­tion?

An effective risk commu­ni­ca­tion and outreach strategy can prevent PFAS from becoming a contentious issue among public stake­hold­ers and local communities. An approach that combines active public outreach and stakeholder engagement with platforms for two-way information exchange can allow water providers to assess the wide range of needs and concerns that must be considered going forward. Addressing those needs and concerns head-on will help facilitate stakeholder acceptance and partic­i­pa­tion. 

Using a risk-based approach often helps manage pollutant impacts using less time and money with a minimized envi­ron­men­tal footprint than conven­tional approaches with an “all-or-nothing” mentality.

A risk-based decision framework identifies if cleanup site or utility facility char­ac­ter­is­tics support sustainable risk management to inform project life cycle activities. It includes performance metrics and tools to evaluate and implement successful risk-based management approaches in alignment with multi-stakeholder values. In addition, the framework addresses uncertainty and risk perception challenges by aligning these approaches with the concepts of risk commu­ni­ca­tion and sustainable remediation. For more details on this framework, reference the ITRC PFAS Technical Guidance

Conceptual Stakeholder Assessment Roadmap

The roadmap is a tool to integrate stakeholder engagement early in the project life cycle. Dr. Harclerode created a simplified framework to determine the site-specific role of stakeholder engagement and aid in outreach planning. The framework demonstrates how the process of stakeholder engagement should be a means of partnership and information exchange.

Heighten Understanding

Project teams often recoil at the thought of presenting topics like cont­a­m­i­na­tion and potential health effects at town halls. “They’re concerned that the public is going to raise an issue that they can’t address, or that they’ll have to expand their scope,” says Dr. Melissa Harclerode, CDM Smith principal and discipline leader for sustain­abil­ity, and a leading expert in stakeholder engagement.

Even in cases with no clear solution or end in sight, informing stake­hold­ers of the health and envi­ron­men­tal risks as soon as possible can increase their sense of agency and build trust. It’s also a good time to inform them of the work being done to mitigate, if not solve, the problem. 

Don't hesitate to reach out to other local insti­tu­tions, like univer­si­ties. Academic insti­tu­tions make great partners and can help gain access to important stake­hold­ers. For an example, take a look at Bennington College, where faculty and other experts have built a course for water purveyors, public works employees, and public health profes­sion­als called "Under­stand­ing PFOA." 

Just because we're providing PFAS information doesn't mean it's widely understood.

Sharpen Perception

"There are a lot of different factors that go into how someone perceives their risk to a particular hazard," Harclerode says. Some people may shrug off the risk, while the fear of the unknown may heighten perceived risk in others. Surveys are useful tools to assess this dimension. You can measure risk perception along a continuum ranging from attenuationwhen experts judge a hazard as serious but the public does not, to ampli­fi­ca­tion, whereby an individual's heightened sense of risk due to factors like physical traits, demo­graph­ics, sense of trust­wor­thi­ness with authorities, and an internal sense of agency leads to a greater perception of risk than experts might assess. 

For example, Harclerode and her team discovered common perception factors that affected partic­i­pa­tion in the mitigation of lead-based paint within residential structures, using data obtained from about 250 survey respondents in Newark, N.J. Their findings included factors that may influence public perception of various forms of risk. Harclerode and her team published their findings in the Journal of Envi­ron­men­tal Management, where they also introduced the "Early Decision Framework" that leads project managers toward a risk-based remediation approach, when appropriate.

Encourage Participation

Preliminary steps to building a public outreach plan may include:  

  • Estab­lish­ment of community-specific engagement goals
  • Community assessment of demo­graph­ics and stakeholder values
  • Noti­fi­ca­tions to the affected population
  • Coor­di­na­tion with relevant community groups
  • Development of outreach materials
  • Press release and briefing
  • Community meeting rehearsal

A complete public outreach plan also includes a strategy for reaching under­rep­re­sented populations like non-native speakers and low-income families, as well as sensitive populations like children and the elderly. Plan carefully and listen to the public’s concerns. Understand demographic and socio-cultural factors and speak clearly, compas­sion­ately, and in nontech­ni­cal terms.

By construct­ing and following a public outreach plan that considers risk commu­ni­ca­tion, you can shrink the distance between you and your stake­hold­ers. Engaging with stake­hold­ers shouldn't feel like a burden—think of it as adding another insightful member to your project team.

Melissa Harclerode Melissa Harclerode
It’s important that project findings be supported by high quality data and that the decision-making process is aided by those results.
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