The Social Implications of Flame Retardant Chemicals: A Case Study in Risk and Hazard PerceptionEPA Grant Number: FP917119
Title: The Social Implications of Flame Retardant Chemicals: A Case Study in Risk and Hazard Perception
Investigators: Cordner, Alissa Annie
Institution: Brown University
EPA Project Officer: Michaud, Jayne
Project Period: September 1, 2010 through August 31, 2013
Project Amount: $111,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2010) RFA Text | Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Fellowship - Human Health: Risk Assessment and Decision Making
This project investigates the social implications of flame retardant chemicals that are used in consumer products and may harm human health and the environment. Some flame retardants have been widely researched, and have become important in advocacy and policy circles as an example of the ubiquity and dangers of chemicals used in consumer products. This makes them an ideal case study for how different actors characterize the dangers of ubiquitous chemicals, and how they interpret the risks and hazards of routine chemical exposure. This project identifies how these chemicals are studied and regulated, how they have entered into public discussion and activist campaigns, and how stakeholders respond to the risks and hazards of chemicals.
Flame retardant chemicals are widely used in consumer products, and may harm human health and the environment. This project identifies how these chemicals are studied and regulated, how they have entered into public discussion and activist campaigns, and how stakeholders respond to the risks and hazards of flame retardants. It serves as a case study for how people characterize the dangers of ubiquitous chemicals, and how this understanding of risk informs their personal and professional actions.
This research includes a literature review, content analysis, and in-depth interviews. I will conduct a detailed literature review tracking the growth of scholarship and awareness of flame retardant chemicals. I will also examine published and publicly available documents related to flame retardants for how the chemical dangers are described in terms of risks and hazards. The main portion of the project consists of approximately 60 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with individuals whose work impacts the public’s relationship to and understanding of chemicals. I will interview scientists, policy makers, activists, industry representatives, participants in biomonitoring studies, and fire fighters and other occupationally-exposed individuals.
This study is expected to fill an important gap in the literature by focusing on how individuals characterize exposure in terms of risk and hazard, and how this understanding can lead to concrete changes in their personal and professional lives. I expect that people differ greatly in how they think about chemical exposures, and this project will document how different stakeholders translate assessed, technological risk into perceived social risk. I also expect that people transform these different perceptions of risk into concrete personal and professional actions. Finally, I anticipate that flame retardants can serve as a case study for how people respond to other emerging contaminants and environmental health threats through scientific, regulatory, and industrial action. Policy decisions on issues like chemical exposure are socially driven, and so studies of the social implications of environmental problems are necessary for a complete understanding of environmental problems and solutions.
Potential to Further Environmental/Human Health Protection:
The ubiquity of chemicals in our environment is an area of growing public and regulatory concern, and yet there is pervasive uncertainty about the risks and hazards of chemicals in the perceptions of scientists, policymakers, activists, and the general public. This research will identify how people with varying personal and professional connections to chemicals make sense of chemical exposure. The understanding of risk and hazard furthered by this project may contribute to the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to incorporate social and economic factors and public values into the risk management process by identifying how policy is influenced by social actors, and by improving the potential for productive inter-agency and inter-group communication. This research will also produce outreach materials for a broad spectrum of audiences, including environmental health researchers and activists, regulators and policy makers, occupationally exposed individuals, and the chemical and manufacturing industries.