"'They kept going for answers': Knowledge, Capacity, and Environmental Health Literacy in Michigan's PBB Contamination"

Erin Lebow-Skelley, Brittany Fremion

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The Michigan PBB Oral History Project documented community residents’ descriptions of a large-scale chemical contamination—the PBB contamination—that occurred in Michigan in 1973. These oral histories document residents’ and others’ experiences during and after the contamination. We conducted a grounded theory qualitative analysis of 31 oral histories to examine the experiences of community members, researchers, lawyers, and others who actively sought out and contributed essential information about the contamination and its impacts. Our findings highlight several challenges encountered in the development of this knowledge including four central themes—contested knowledge, community skills, inaction, and uncertainty. Integrating environmental health literacy, community capacity, and contested illness frameworks, we examine the contributions of community residents, scientists (from inside and outside the community), and others to the development of knowledge to inform decisions and sustain action regarding this large-scale contamination. We close with a discussion of lessons learned regarding efforts to build environmental health knowledge within uncertain and often contested contexts and for promoting environmental health and action related to large-scale chemical contaminations. Our findings suggest the importance of integrated frameworks for examining and promoting the critical role of community skills, leadership, participation, sense of community, and community power in promoting environmental health.
Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health
Issue number24
StatePublished - Dec 12 2022


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