A Fictional Case Study
In this story, you will trace the steps of a California community that investigated whether they should conduct a health study. Community members and researchers explored various health study options; this section will focus on one of those options. After assessing whether a health study would be appropriate in their community, residents and their allies determined that it was not feasible. This scenario is quite common. Because a health study is only one of several tools available to advocates for community health, residents can focus on other efforts, as they did in this case.
What Happened in this California Town?
A town in California was home to an industrial facility processing toxic chemicals. The facility released these chemicals into the air. These chemicals are known to cause cancer. Ten years after the facility went out of business, a regulatory environmental agency began to investigate how to clean up the contamination that had spread from the facility into the soil and water.
Residents in this town wanted to know if chemicals released from the facility caused health problems. Through talking with each other, they discovered that a number of people had various illnesses. Some residents suspected that the illnesses were related to a particular toxic chemical emitted from the facility.
Residents were particularly concerned about the town's middle school students, as the school was located next to the facility. Students had attended this school for many years while the facility was emitting carcinogenic chemicals.
Why Did Residents Want a Health Study?
Some residents wanted to conduct a health study to see if there was a problem with the community's health due to the toxic facility in the town. The community had a variety of concerns, including noncancerous health effects such as reproductive concerns, asthma, and diabetes, as well as actual cancers such as breast cancer, leukemia, and lung cancer.
Unfortunately, a health study cannot answer a broad question such as: Has the toxic facility in this town harmed the community's health? However, a health study can help answer more specific questions about the relationship between the toxic facility in this town and specific health outcomes. Researchers explored several health study options seeking to answer specific questions such as:
- Do people who lived near the facility when it released the toxic chemical have higher rates of specific health outcomes than what would be expected?
- Do former workers of this facility, who were employed at this facility while it emitted the toxic chemical, have higher rates of specific health outcomes than would be expected?
- Do children who went to school near the toxic facility in this town, during the years that the facility operated, have higher rates of specific health outcomes than what would be expected?
This section will focus on how residents and researchers evaluated the feasibility of conducting a health study of children who went to school next to the facility. More specifically, they tried to answer the following: do children attending this school have higher rates of lung cancer than would be expected for this group because of exposure to the chemical from the facility? Though there were many different possible health outcomes to evaluate, this example focuses on lung cancer, because the chemical released from the facility is known to cause lung cancer.