Factors influencing acquisition of ecological and exposure information about hazards and risks from contaminated sites

Joanna Burger, Michael Greenberg, Michael Gochfeld, Sheila Shukla, Karen Lowrie, Roger Keren

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Considerable research indicates that a wide range of socio-economic factors influence attitudes and perceptions about environmental hazards and risks, and that social trust in those who manage a hazard is strongly correlated to judgements about risks and benefits. We suggest that there are three steps that lead to environmental risk perceptions: acquisition of information, interpretation and synthesis of different pieces of information, and understanding of that information in light of previous knowledge, perceptions, or attitudes. In this study we presented 211 college students in the sciences and non-sciences with ecological and exposure information using text, tables and maps to examine the factors that affect information acquisition and interpretation concerning ecological issues at a fictitious hazardous waste site. Students were allowed about an hour to read the materials and answer questions. The percent of students answering each question correctly varied from 4 to 82%, indicating that some questions were extremely difficult to answer. We attributed these differences to variations in the number of places information was presented (in text, tables, maps, or a combination) and the complexity of the information (how many pieces of information were required to answer the question correctly). The correlation between the number of students answering each question correctly and these combined measures (frequency, complexity) was -0.72. Thus, although there were differences in accuracy concerning ecological information as presented in this study, the major differences were accounted for by how the information was presented, and how much information was required. This suggests that risk communicators should carefully determine which ecological information is critical for the target audience, and ensure that it is presented several times (in different forms). That a lower percentage of people correctly answered questions that required synthesizing several pieces of information suggests that this complexity should be reduced where possible, or that the pieces of information should be tied clearly to the conclusion. Self-declaration of effort and perceptions of safety of the site did not markedly influence the relationship between accuracy, difficulty of finding information, and complexity of information. Other possible confounding variables (i.e., science vs non-science major) only accounted for about 27% of the variation in student's overall score on ecological questions; age, ethnicity, and gender did not enter as significant variables. We cannot manage environmental hazards with appropriate stakeholder input unless we understand how to present environmental information to achieve a full understanding. Protection of human health and the environment requires that people understand ecological and exposure information, particularly on buffer lands.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)413-425
Number of pages13
JournalEnvironmental monitoring and assessment
Issue number1-3
StatePublished - Feb 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Environmental Science
  • Pollution
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


  • Buffer lands
  • Exposure
  • Habitatuse
  • Information acquisition
  • Knowledge
  • Risk communication
  • Risk perception


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