Dr. Maida P. Galvez presented a primer for pediatricians on how to succinctly and sufficiently answer environmental questions from worried parents, but she could have just as easily been coaching doctors on how to speak to the media.
She called it “risk communication” in her talk at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and she employed these communication principles to demonstrate how she handles a common question from parents these days — are plastics safe? Note to doctors and researchers, though: the same techniques could help you get any message across to news reporters in a way that satisfies both you and the journalist.
First, plan ahead. Anticipate the question and develop a maximum of three key messages that you want to convey, using one sentence for each. For each of those three messages, prepare no more than three supporting facts, using one sentence for each supporting statement.
So, for environmental concerns, first define the exposure to the potential environmental risk, then explain what is known about potential health effects, and finally offer action items for families. One, two, three. Of course, you’ll want to review the literature, summarize the information in your head, and condense it to that one-sentence statement for each message. Dr. Galvez didn’t say this would be simple. Luckily, resources can help with this, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals or fact sheets from Dr. Galvez’s institution, the Center for Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
Oh, and about those plastics. First, exposure: Phthalates and bisphenol A are plasticizers added to many common products to increase flexibility and durability. Second, health effects: Animal studies show adverse health effects from exposure to these plasticizers, and growing evidence in the U.S. population suggests we’re all being exposed to phthalates and bisphenol A, especially children and adolescents. Third, action items: If you want to take a precautionary approach, choose alternatives to products that may contain plasticizers.
How to do that? Keep it simple, she suggested. Especially during pregnancy, simplify the number of products in your life. Anything with added fragrance has phthalates. Cosmetics and lotions that go on really smoothly can have phthalates. Check labeling of plastic products, or just look at the recycling symbol and avoid numbers 3, 6, and 7. Physicians may want to give anxious parents a bilingual Pocket Guide to Plastics created by Dr. Galvez’s institution. You can order them by e-mailing Dr. Claudio Luz at Luz.Claudio@mssm.edu. Or you can download similar fact sheets from the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units. Avoid putting plastic items in microwaves or dishwashers, because that promotes leaching of plasticizers. And when possible, replace plastic-packaged food, formula, and water with fresh food, breast milk, and stainless steel or glass containers.
— Sherry Boschert (on twitter @SherryBoschert)