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No. 15 – Is It Wrong to Use Scare Tactics to Motivate Homeowners to Test and Mitigate for Radon?

February 2, 2011

The answer to this question depends partly on how strongly you feel about radon as a significant health risk. James Dunlap (Health Physics Society Newsletter, Nov. 1995) would say the use of fear to motivate homeowners is absolutely wrong. He undoubtedly echoes the sentiments of most health physicists. The 1990 HPS Radon Position Statement says, “the Society condemns the use of fear or other emotional scare tactics to overcome apathy or encourage action on the part of homeowners or other members of the public.” On the other hand, the response of Jack Gillis to James Dunlap indicates that the public is not alarmed by messages on radon. He says the public is getting the key facts on radon and is taking informed action. Citizens have not complained or expressed fears about radon messages. Perhaps, however, the public is responding in a different way.

How is the Public Responding to Radon Messages?

After nearly ten years of informational and emotional appeals, only about 10% of the homes in the U.S. have been tested for radon. How come? Apparently homeowners are not alarmed enough about radon to pay $ 10 – $20 for a radon test. EPA learned in the 1980s that information alone is not a good motivator for public action. Attempts at emotional appeals have not been much more successful.

Why is the Public so Apathetic About Radon?

Public apathy is partly because radon is invisible and odorless, and the victims are not obvious. Apathy is also partly due to information overload of our senses, our intellect, and our feelings. We are constantly bombarded with appeals for our attention and we have learned to be selective. We all know that the news media and many entertainment shows emphasize “the shocking,” “the tragic,” “the alarming,” “the dramatic,” and “danger is all around you.” We have become numb to the nightly “bad” news and repeated warnings to “buckle up,” “slow to 55 mph,” “just say no to drugs,” “if you drink, don’t drive,” “reduce cholesterol,” “lose weight,” and “exercise.” In this barrage of warnings, how are radon warnings likely to be heard, especially when there is no visible evidence? For most people, radon is just another abstract hypothetical risk from an endless list of risks that we are warned about. When you can watch several dozen murders and other acts of violence on an average evening of TV, it’s hard to get excited about radon “the invisible intruder” in your home. Perhaps some of the “alarm” is also in the minds of health physicists who are uncomfortable with feelings in communications.

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