Community Outreach is a public informational/educational program which targets the citizens of Sonoma County who may be at risk from environmental hazards such as groundwater contamination, West Nile Virus and mold.
The program provides notification to citizens generally within one-fourth of a mile about potential public health risks in their neighborhood such as potential groundwater contamination of domestic wells; health risk information and risk reduction strategies; collaboration with communities to assess and address needs; resource information to help meet the needs of impacted communities (i.e. water treatment device information, stress support); environmental risk education to health care providers; integration of environmental health with community activities; cooperation and communication with multiple agencies to ensure community needs are met and services are not duplicated; packets, pamphlets, brochures and other health information of educational nature; a bridge between public perception and agency interventions/regulations.
The seed for a Community Outreach program was planted in response to the needs of a community, West College Avenue, experiencing the tragedy of groundwater contamination in domestic wells. While water quality in domestic wells is not regulated by any agency, it became clear that a gap existed between the public’s perceived “right to know” of a potential environmental hazard and the lack of any agency responsibility to provide information to citizens potentially at risk. In collaboration with an affected community, consultants, and a variety of city, county and state agencies, a Groundwater Contamination Response Plan was developed which ensures timely notification to citizens about potential public health risks. This notification includes health risk information, risk reduction strategies and available resources to the meet the needs of the community. This collaborative process was also utilized to develop domestic well and water quality brochures. Additionally, several in-service trainings were provided to medical residents and a continuing education seminar was offered to health care providers in the community.
The Community Outreach program, which concentrates on water quality issues, has expanded to increase public awareness and prevention techniques for West Nile Virus. It has also begun a collaborative venture with the local chapter of the American Lung Association to provide information and outreach about mold and the local Food Industry Advisory Council to create a food safety newsletter and timely press releases to the media. While these programs are typically fee-for-service and regulatory in nature, there is a need to provide people with information and resources which will help them make decisions about the risks in their environment that impact their daily lives. The goal of the program is reduction of public health risk by informing and empowering citizens through the cooperation, communication, collaboration, and coordination of government agencies and the private sector.
The roles of the Agency in this program were to create a Community Outreach program in the Environmental Health Division of the Department of Health Services to respond to the gap between public perception and/or risk status and multiple agency regulatory responsibilities, act as a catalyst and advocate for communities in the absence of regulation, empower communities with information and resources about potential environmental health hazards, develop tools such as a Groundwater Contamination Response Plan to be used as a model for responsive action in unregulated arenas, develop “plain English” education, information and risk reduction strategy literature to aid the public in understanding a variety of environmental health risks (water quality, mold, leaking underground storage tanks, etc.), participate in a cross-section of community meetings to ensure the public health needs of citizens are being addressed, and educate health care providers about environmental risks.
The West College Avenue Neighborhood Association (WCNA), impacted by high levels of PCE groundwater contamination in domestic wells, played an active and instrumental role in the development of the information and resources to ensure that the future needs of Sonoma County citizens are met. The Agency held many collaborative meetings with the WCNA to develop the legacy of the Sonoma County Groundwater Contamination Response Plan. Interagency meetings were held to ensure adequate communication, cooperation and forward progress without duplication of effort. Other private stakeholders, such as certified water testing laboratories and well drillers, were included in this process.
The cost of the first year (2002-2003) of the program was $119, 228. This includes $112,971 in salaries and benefits, $5,369 for printing, and $888 for postage. Costs are anticipated to vary from year to year due to the number of public notifications (i.e. printing and postage) that may be required.
The groundwater contamination response processes, including development of the Response Plan and water quality literature, are being evaluated and monitored by the WCNA, University of Oregon Technical Outreach Service to Communities (TOSC) and by a variety of state agencies such as Environmental Health Investigations Branch (EHIB) of CA Department of Health Services and by the North Coast Region of the CA Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB). Health care provider education is effectively monitored by completion of evaluation forms at the conclusion of trainings/seminars. Short evaluation statements are also solicited at the conclusion of information presentations to community and/or business groups (i.e. Blucher Creek Watershed Association, 12 county realtors’ associations, etc.).
Letters of appreciation from individuals are kept on file and phone logs are maintained with callers’ comments. It is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify the impact of the Community Outreach program with hard data. How does one measure the empowerment of a community utilizing trust, cooperation, communication, collaboration and information re-sourcing? This innovative program is not amenable to the historic public health ability to measure prevention by the number of vaccinations administered. In the early days of environmental health, there were health educator and community organization positions which served a similar function as the Community Outreach program.
Unfortunately, since these positions could not adapt to “fee-for-service” and because beneficial results could not be easily quantified, they were the first positions to be dropped during tough budget times. Decades later, it has become evident that outreach and education programs fulfill a vital role in bridging the gap between public/environmental health agencies’ traditional legal and regulatory responsibilities and the public’s perception of the agencies’ responsibilities. While not directly quantifiable, an informed and empowered community becomes a vital partner in the health of the community.
The program is currently funded and is anticipated to continue through realignment funds which primarily are the county’s portion of motor vehicle license fees collected by the state. State hazmat fees are also utilized for notification of neighbors near leaking underground tank sites. For special projects, collaborative funding is sought from community stakeholders and/or grant funds (i.e. partnership of Agency and American Lung Association to provide mold information/seminars).