Researchers Work to Engage Community Hit by Chemical Disaster
Following a toxic chemical spill in 2005, a team of researchers from the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health (MIAEH) and other institutions helped engage the community of Graniteville, South Carolina, to address its most pressing public health needs. But unlike in other disaster sites, where there is often a focus on only the immediate emergency response, the researchers took careful efforts to involve the community in a plan for long-term recovery. Through partnerships with stakeholders and representatives to address community-identified health and environmental concerns, Graniteville recovered from the disaster with a stronger, more sustainable health infrastructure. The researchers describe their work with the community in an article for the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. "Public health practice emphasizes community engagement, but we rarely see this approach implemented after technological disasters such as a chemical spill," says Dr. Sacoby Wilson, an assistant professor at MIAEH and one of the paper's authors. "In Graniteville, we wanted to help the community identify its health and environmental concerns so that they could be addressed in both the short term and long term." Working with state public health agencies, a coalition of experts from the University of South Carolina, MIAEH and other institutions used a community-based participatory service (CBPS) approach to engage the Graniteville community after a spill of chlorine gas led to nine immediate deaths, 72 hospitalizations and 840 people seeking medical attention. The Graniteville Community Coalition assisted residents by offering health screenings, which were especially important given the town's status as a medically underserved community prior to the disaster. Town hall meetings and a community advisory board helped residents voice their concerns and stay informed. Approximately three years after the disaster, the public health practice focusing on short-term relief transitioned into public health research to examine long-term health effects of chlorine exposure. Thanks in part to the community engagement that began shortly after the disaster, residents had trust in the research team and were willing to get screened regularly at a new pulmonary diagnostic laboratory.