Environmental Disaster Divides Families

Social costs of environmental disaster could be high for communities and families

(RxWiki News) You might think that a disaster or serious illness affecting your family and community would bring people together - overcoming differences in the face of adversity.

However, in some cases, the opposite may be true.

New research that monitored focus groups dealing with asbestos related diseases shows that economic concerns and trust issues may divide communities and families, rather than bring them together.

The researchers hope that the study will lead to better environmental policy, which could more effectively protect communities.

"If you suspect environmental contamination - do not hesitate to contact authorities."

"The casual observer might assume that when people become seriously ill and there are fatalities, that families would come together and support one another," says Heather Orom, PhD, assistant professor of community health and health behavior of the University at Buffalo. "But our research shows that often times, the opposite happens.”

Libby, Montana, where the research was conducted, was a source of mining and processing for asbestos related products. Now, many people in the area suffer from asbestos related illnesses.

“These slow moving technological disasters become such a divisive issue in communities. The family dynamics totally mirror what happens in the community,” says Orom. "We found that the people in these situations can be victimized twice.

They become ill and then may be stigmatized because some members of the community view illness claims as lacking credibility, as baseless attempts to get compensation that tarnish the reputation of the town."

Additionally, news of contamination may devalue properties and cause businesses to leave the area. These economic concerns are pitted against health and environmental concerns.

"Suddenly, you've got two disasters: an economic disaster and a medical disaster," adds Orom. "It's not surprising that some families decide, 'let's stop talking about it.’”

The research team identified five patterns within affected families: open/supportive, silent/supportive, open/conflictual, silent/conflictual, and silent/denial. The team believes that families showing silent or conflictual communication tendencies are making it more difficult to promote better health choices.

The team is hopeful that, through this research, better public policy can be developed which will provide better protection for communities and families suffering from such disasters.

The study was published online on January 5th, 2012 in the Journal of Family Issues and was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Review Date: 
April 14, 2012