Risk Communication is a Critical Step in Addressing Emerging Contaminants...

Especially for high-profile compounds like PFAS. A well-conceived and effective communications plan can help ensure public safety and instill public confidence.

In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced new drinking water health advisories for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) chemicals, including GenX [Hexafluoropropylene Oxide (HFPO) Dimer Acid and its Ammonium Salt. HFPO dimer acid and its ammonium salt are also known as “GenX chemicals” because they are the two major chemicals associated with the GenX processing aid technology]. The updated health advisories levels are based on new science and consider lifetime exposure to the compounds. For GenX, the EPA set a final lifetime health advisory level of 10 parts per trillion (ppt), and for PFOA and PFAS, the EPA issued interim updated health advisories of 0.004 ppt for PFOA and 0.02 ppt for PFOS, with a minimum reporting level of 4 ppt. The EPA plans to move forward with proposing a PFAS National Drinking Water Regulation in the fall of 2022.

Water industry experts understand the many sides of this issue from the science and the terminology to the potential exposure, as well as the health risks that these chemicals pose. However, it may be difficult for stakeholders to comprehend the nuance of these complexities and the science they are founded on. When a public drinking water source has been infiltrated by a contaminant, it is the responsibility of the water provider to give timely and accurate information both internally and externally to the public. The quality of outgoing communications during a contamination event will directly influence a community’s action or lack thereof. Insufficient, inconsistent, or poorly crafted communications strategies can heighten feelings of stress and undermine trust with the public. By communicating clearly and concisely, water providers can rally support, calm constituents, and provide the information needed for their customers to make solid decisions that may impact their health.


Risk communication is a critical step in addressing emerging contaminants, especially for high-profile compounds like PFAS. There are differences in the messaging and methods by which certain agencies, municipalities, and organizations may seek to share information with their audiences. Given the breadth of regulatory efforts currently underway, the sampling strategies, and the general involvement with PFAS, it is important to promptly communicate the best practices available to help effectively and efficiently address contamination issues.

Our team is working with a number of communities that have exceeded the current maximum contamination level for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), total trihalomethanes (TTHM), haloacetic acids (HAA), as well as other impacts on water quality. We are assisting these communities in operating water quality hotlines, as well as conveying simplified messaging to allow stakeholders to understand the risks and the potential hazards. We engage in open dialogue with residents that allows them to have a better understanding of the potential level of their exposure, and the concentrated effort that is underway by Federal, State, and local agencies to protect the health and safety of the general public. By engaging in an informative conversation with the public, these community members not only walk away with the information they need to make informed decisions about their and their family’s health, they also gain a deeper understanding of their Water Supply community which makes it easier to tackle an issue as complicated as drinking water quality. Effective risk communication in combination with frequent educational initiatives for public stakeholders have a long-lasting and exponential benefit. Earning the public’s trust with clear, concise, and precise communication with straightforward honesty will carry a community through any crisis.

“We have a small office staff in Plainville, so when the public drinking water supply exceeded the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protections maximum contamination level for PFAS, we were concerned about our staff becoming overwhelmed by the inquiries. Having CSS onboard has assisted us in responding effectively and efficiently to consumer inquiries about water quality and has increased the community’s trust in our team’s ability to protect public health and safety,” said Dennis Morton, Public Works Director.


“During a career in public service, you are likely to encounter significant calamities, both short-term and long-term, that have an impact on large segments of the community. Those events may include severe weather, a major snowstorm, a flooding situation, an infrastructure failure, a senior staff issue, or a public health crisis. Immediately after such an occurrence, the community will be looking for demonstrations of assertive leadership in its political and salaried officials. The largest component of that effort is the ability to effectively convey all the nuances of the situation such that a reasonable person may feel as though the matter is being effectively managed within the range of their respective authority. The content of that very first outreach effort is a critical step in building confidence with the public so every effort must be made to make it accurate, concise, consistent, and forward-looking. You only get one “first chance” at it and a failed or incomplete message will sow doubt in your constituency that will be difficult to overcome.

At CSS, we have a seasoned professional staff that will quickly recognize the various components that must be included in messaging about sensitive issues to community stakeholders. I have had multi-year experiences working with most of these talented individuals. They had extraordinary public careers and now, from the private sector, they remain committed to achieving a level of excellence in every aspect of their work. Public/private partnerships are a proven way to advance large-scale government initiatives, and we are uniquely established for that purpose,” said Peter Sellers, Senior Project Manager, CSS.


We understand the many strategies in informing the public about long-term environmental impacts on drinking water, and we know that effective risk communication can create lasting positive effects in the community. When done right, risk communication can improve public health, public environmental literacy, and increase support and compliance for the regulations that address these issues. Central to that effort is the commitment of CSS to work collaboratively with our clients, their respective public service utilities, and the various stakeholders required to elevate clean water, clean water services, together the infrastructure that supports it.

A concerted effort by a Water Supply Authority to provide the well-crafted verbal, written, and visual components of an effective public outreach effort will be essential to the maintenance of the public’s trust in an affected community. The directed management of this public health crisis will later yield enhanced opportunities for the acquisition of critical Federal, State, and Local funding for the inevitable solutions. We understand that varying degrees of limited resources for a dedicated public information staff may make it difficult to proactively engage with consumers and target audiences on this sensitive topic, so we are here to assist in your efforts to communicate the value and importance of water.


About


Capital Strategic Solutions (CSS) is a Massachusetts-based woman-owned business comprised of former municipal employees. We deliver creative and cost-effective services that maximize success while minimizing risk for our clients. Our team specializes in community engagement, grant writing & management, impact mitigation & crisis communication, project management and oversight, solutions for data management, website design services, tactical social media outreach, and virtual and in-person event planning. Our team works diligently with our clients to define clear project goals while resolving complex challenges.


To learn more about our services, and the expertise of our team please email us at info@Capital-Strategic-Solutions.com or call us at 508-690-0046 to schedule a meeting.

11 views0 comments