BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Environmental disasters impact individuals and
communities; they also affect how family members communicate with
each other, sometimes in surprising ways, according to a paper
published by a faculty member at the University at Buffalo in the
Journal of Family Issues.
The study is the first systematic analysis of how families
communicate when faced with serious health issues brought on by
"slow moving technological disasters," like environmental
disasters. The purpose was to identify how people in families
communicate when they are facing these issues in order to better
characterize the social costs of such disasters.
The findings were, in some ways, counterintuitive, says Heather
Orom, PhD, assistant professor of community health and health
behavior in the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions
and lead author on the paper.
"The casual observer might assume that when people become
seriously ill and there are fatalities, that families would come
together and support one another," Orom says. "But our research
shows that often times, the opposite happens. That is because
whether it's buried toxic waste, such as in Love Canal or
contaminated drinking water in Woburn, Massachusetts, these slow
moving technological disasters become such a divisive issue in
communities. The family dynamics totally mirror what happens in the
Orom's research consisted of focus groups conducted with
residents of Libby, Montana, who either had asbestos-releated
disease, had family members with the disease or were not affected
either way. Libby, Montana has significantly elevated incidences of
several kinds of asbestos-related disease, such as pleural disease,
asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.
For almost 70 years, asbestos-contaminated vermiculite, a
mineral commonly used in insulation, construction and as an
additive to potting soil, was mined and processed in Libby. As a
result, asbestos-related diseases, which often are fatal, are
common among former mine employees; family members may also have
been affected by the asbestos carried home by workers on their
clothes. Cases also have been linked to day-to-day exposures among
people residing in the town and surrounding area.
"We found that the people in these situations can be victimized
twice," Orom continues. "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."
According to Orom, what typically occurs is that with the news
of contamination, properties are devalued and businesses start
leaving the area. "Suddenly, you've got two disasters: an economic
disaster and a medical disaster," she says. "It's not surprising
that some families decide, 'let's stop talking about it.' Those who
continue to bring it up are then labeled troublemakers. Those who
are sick and are seen with their oxygen also get labeled. So, many
people, especially those with symptoms, start to isolate themselves
at home and that affects how and if they discuss their illness with
family members." Orom adds that this behavior could prevent people
from seeking the medical or psychological help they need; it also
could prevent them from discussing important measures that other
family members should take, such as screening to find out if they,
too, have the disease.
Orom and her colleagues identified five communication patterns
within the affected families, which they characterized as
open/supportive; silent/supportive; open/conflictual;
silent/conflictual and silent/denial. They speculated that the
silent and conflictual types of communication could be barriers to
attitudes and behaviors that would promote better health, such as
screening for asbestos-related diseases, and could increase
psychological distress in families.
"There is a reason why people don't like to discuss illness in
general, anyway," says Orom. "With an environmental diasaster,
there is an additional layer creating a propensity for silence. In
our focus groups, we saw instances where families rejected the
legitimacy of the illness and estranged the person who was
Orom notes that the negative effects that come from these kinds
of responses within families do have significance in the larger
community and should be taken into account by policymakers.
"If there are real social and financial costs that result from
these disasters and their effects on family relationships, for
example, if divorces increase as a result, then maybe this kind of
research can help move policies in a direction of being more
protective of communities," she says.
The research was conducted as part of a larger communication
project by the National Center for Vermiculate and Asbestos-Related
Cancers at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit.
Funding came from the Centers for Disease Control and
Co-authors with Orom are Rebecca J.W. Cline of Kent State
University; Tanis Hernandez of the Center for Asbestos-Related
Disease; Lisa Berry-Bobovski and Ann G. Schwartz of the Karmanos
Cancer Institute and John C. Ruckdeschel of Intermountain