Still Invisible: The Risks of Eating Locally Caught Fish from Polluted Waters

Still Invisible: The Risks of Eating Locally Caught Fish from Polluted Waters

MEJO’s first project involved toxins in locally caught fish in Madison, Wis. What we had expected to be a two month project–installing fish consumption advisory signs along lake shorelines–turned into two-year fight against the intransigence of public officials. Even then, flush with a small victory, we were hopeful that the success we did have would lead to more, writing “As to whether the evidence we gathered encourages public health or other government agencies to advocate for more signs or further work to address fish consumption risk disparities, as this book went to press the jury was still out.”

This was in our chapter in the 2011 MIT Press book, “Technoscience and Environmental Justice: Expert Cultures in a Grassroots Movement (Gwen Ottinger and Benjamin R. Cohen, editors).

Boy, were we wrong.

Our chapter was called Invisible People, Invisible Risks: How Scientific Assessments of Environmental Health Risks Overlook Minorities-and How Community Participation Can Make Them Visible.

But as we learned in 2013 when public officials said they couldn’t afford to replace a few missing signs, these people are still invisible. [The signs cost about $50 each.]

Here’s the conclusion from that chapter:

Conclusion: MEJO’s Community Collective Work Transforming
Institutional Risk Assessments

MEJO’s ongoing work builds on environmental justice efforts elsewhere (including the many projects described in this book) in which laypeople and community organizations push from the bottom up to bring environmental health risk gaps and disparities to light in institutional risk assessments and policies. Our projects are creating productive ruptures in long-standing institutional scientific practices by bringing diverse people directly into risk-assessment and communication processes that typically privilege institutional scientific experts and that rely on abstract, reductionist approaches that tend to overlook race and class disparities as well as local cultures and knowledge.

MEJO has been slowly bringing the cultural contexts and knowledge of local angling communities to the awareness of institution officials and academic scientists by sharing these contextual factors in part through the various community interactions discussed above. The organization has also held several public events to raise awareness about fish contamination and the need for signs. It has also brought environmental justice in Madison to the public eye by sending out numerous press releases about these efforts, resulting in coverage in the local daily, weekly, and minority newspapers, as well as local TV and radio (Cullen 2008; Novak 2006; Schneider 2008a, 2008b; Weier 2006). The press releases and reports have generated media attention to the fish consumption disparities, increasing broader community and political awareness of these inequities. Such public events and media coverage play important roles in building public and political awareness and dialog about environmental justice issues that are otherwise invisible.

Coordinating these public outreach elements is part of, not distinct from, the work to reformulate scientific processes of risk assessment. All along, MEJO has facilitated the inclusion of minority anglers, leaders, and other community members in public meetings to share their perspectives directly with agency representatives, politicians, and scientists.

Based on public officials’ reactions in meetings, it is clear that many of them have not interacted with poor minorities in their professional work before and some are being exposed to race, class, and cultural perspectives they have never considered before. This very exposure at a cultural community level, we argue, is a necessary step toward changing risk-assessment procedures to include the experiences of affected populations.

Although there is no shortage of evidence of resistance to change and deference to entrenched models of risk assessment that will be difficult to transform, MEJO’s work also shows signs that its efforts are slowly paying off. There are indeed small signs that these activities are changing the public officials’ approaches to addressing these disparities. These include an increasing willingness to accept MEJO’s data, collaborate with MEJO in gathering more data, and accept cultural and contextual knowledge of diverse angling communities as valid and important components of risk assessments. MEJO’s efforts regarding fish advisory signs along local lakes have also encouraged public and policy discussions about risk and communication disparities.

The advisory resolution that ultimately passed, although weakened, requires public agencies to work with MEJO to investigate communication efforts, which will hopefully engender further multicultural dialog about environmental justice in Madison.

MEJO leaders and members are developing working relationships with public officials and knowledge of political processes related to public health assessments, helping them become active participants in these processes. Several MEJO members have gained organizing experience and enough knowledge about fish consumption risks to be effective public communicators of their community’s and MEJO’s concerns. This in turn has helped MEJO’s credibility with other local community organizations of color, and the group is beginning to develop collaborations with these organizations.

Multicultural organizing, of course, is extremely time intensive, as well as politically and culturally challenging. In part because of existing segregation, racism, and lack of access among minority groups in Madison, groups of color have limited power in the community. Anger and tensions about this lack of power and access, and about deep and systemic inequities between minorities and whites, at times create emotionally charged public and political interactions. Moreover, although MEJO has begun to bring Hmong, Latino, and African-American groups together-an important accomplishment in itself-it has been difficult to facilitate sustained participation by people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds. Cultural and language differences among racial/ethnic groups can be pronounced, and are sometimes barriers to effective collective organizing.

Beyond the essential step for creating increasing awareness of environmental injustices, the case of MEJO illustrates mechanisms that can gradually transform institutional scientific practices-such as creating common meeting forums, working to negotiate language with various stakeholders, diversifying voices in relevant debates-that we hope will provide examples for scientists, scholars, and activists alike. Our work illustrates some ways that risk scientists and communicators can effectively engage with diverse people affected by risks, and incorporate their knowledge into risk assessments-making these assessments not only more equitable and culturally relevant but also more comprehensive and accurate. Risk communications based on these improved assessments, likewise, will be more just and relevant and will hopefully reach people not previously reached because risk assessments rendered them invisible.

Toward those ends, and as a kind of epilogue to this chapter, MEJO released a report in the summer of 2008 based on its fish consumption surveys and focus-group results, outlining fish consumption disparities and recommending that lake-specific advisory signs, in Spanish, Hmong, and English, be permanently installed in most popular shoreline fishing locations (Powell and Powell 2008). The local public health agency in turn released its own report calling for increased outreach efforts and recommended that signs be installed in three languages at the three or four most popular shoreline spots. Although the agency report only adopted some of MEJO’s recommendations, and framed the fish consumption and communication issues on its terms, it was a step forward.

The advisory sign project, however, encountered a surprising level of political resistance from natural resource agency leaders who did not want signs posted in city and county parks. MEJO continued to advocate for the signs-and for more than just three or four. In the fall of 2008,
MEJO activists persuaded city and county elected officials to add just a few hundred dollars more to the advisory sign budget, which resulted in at least one sign in all of the most heavily fished urban locations. MEJO members designed the signs, making sure species that are eaten by many shore anglers but missing from advisories (e.g., white bass, catfish, carp) were included, and provided culturally appropriate Spanish and Hmong translations for the signs. The signs were subsequently approved by local and state public health agencies and the state natural resource department.

Public health officials worked with city and county parks staff to place the signs where MEJO members recommended they be installed, based on their knowledge of the most popular shoreline fishing locations.

It was a small-but hard-won-victory.

In spring 2009, MEJO worked pro bono with the public health department staff to develop a shoreline angler survey in three languages to evaluate the efficacy of the signs (one of the conditions placed on funding the pilot sign project by agency officials who resisted the project).

In the summer and fall of 2009, MEJO helped train interviewers and conducted about 150 surveys with shoreline anglers in English, Hmong, Laotian, and Spanish. Public health staff did about 50 more interviews.

MEJO’s citizen scientist (Maria Powell) analyzed the quantitative and qualitative results and submitted them in a report to the public health agency in December 2009 (Powell, Xiong, and Powell 2009).

The survey results supported previous evidence we and others have gathered on consumption and awareness disparities (e.g., minority shore anglers eat significantly more fish than white anglers and are less aware of advisories)-but also provided useful information on where different kinds of anglers tend to get information about fish and what kinds of information they prefer. The signs are inspiring conversations and questions among shoreline anglers and others who spend time at the lakes about fish consumption risks, causes of water pollution, and ways to get more information and get involved. Most importantly, the interviews showed that shoreline anglers felt the signs were very useful for easily accessible and understandable fish consumption advice. Many anglers suggested that more signs be posted.

From this and prior experiences, our work has shown that while scientists and policymakers can be transformed situationally on specific issues, it takes ongoing diligence on activists’ part to ensure that transformations are more than transitory and result in meaningful outcomes over time. In the projects we describe here, for example, we initiated the concerns, brought together the various local and state stakeholders, conducted the research, set forth plans of action, and advocated in public processes and via media over long periods of time to make sure they were carried out. This involved a tense “push and pull” between us and professionals then used our work as “cover” to push decision makers to tackle environmental justice issues that would likely have fizzled out otherwise-or would not have been initiated at all. Of course, agency scientists’ willingness to advocate on these matters helped us in turn.

When decision makers listened and acted on our recommendations, it was because health agency leaders were willing to lend their credibility to our efforts. For now, though, MEJO has at least a tentative “place at the table” in community decisions about environmental health and justice. As to whether the evidence we gathered encourages public health or other government agencies to advocate for more signs or further work to address fish consumption risk disparities, as this book went to press the jury was still out.

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