Knowledge about fish consumption advisories: a risk communication failure within a university population.


Burger J, Gochfeld M.


Sci Total Environ. 2008 Feb 15;390(2-3):346-54. Epub 2007 Nov 19.



Considerable attention has focused on whether people are aware of fish consumption advisories, particularly among fishermen and as a function of demographic variables. Yet little attention has been directed at the messages people are receiving from fish consumption advisories. This study examines knowledge about the benefits and risks of fish in relation to ethnicity and the degree of knowledge in a general university population in New Jersey. Subjects were asked open-ended questions about risks and benefits and responses were grouped into categories. A far greater percent of people had heard something about the risks and benefits of eating fish than could report specific information about the risks or benefits. While only 16% of subjects did not know what the benefits of eating fish were, 62% did not have any specific information about why there were warnings. However, for people who had some specific information, a higher proportion (57%) could identify the chemicals (PCBs, mercury) causing the risks, than could identify omega-3 fatty acids as contributing to benefits (40%). Much of the knowledge was very general, such as eating fish is "good for the heart", "good for you", or "brain food". Less than half of the subjects could name species of fish that were either high or low in contaminants. There were ethnic disparities in knowledge about both the benefits and the risks from fish consumption. A higher percentage of whites knew about both the benefits and risks of fish consumption than others; Asians knew the least about the risks, and blacks and hispanics knew the least about the benefits. There were also ethnic differences in ability to name fish that are low in contaminants, or high in contaminants. Minorities, particularly hispanics, were unable to list species that are high in contaminants. We identified three levels of knowledge about fish consumption: 1) whether people are aware of the risks or benefits of fish consumption, 2) whether they have any specific knowledge about the benefits or risks from fish consumption, and 3) whether that knowledge is correct. We suggest that for people to make informed decisions about whether to eat fish, and what fish to eat (amount, fish size, species), they must have knowledge at all three levels about both the risks and benefits. Although agencies such as FDA are concerned that the public will be confused by advisory details, we find that the lack of details is a major component of ineffective communication. To provide the public with sufficient information to make sound risk decisions, public agencies and the media have to provide clearer, more directed messages dealing with the basis for making risk decisions.


18006043 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
Full text: Elsevier Science
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