Environmental risks

Strategic communication on the risks of perpetual chemicals

PFAS – these four letters stand for the controversial group of substances known as perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl substances. As they are water-, grease- and dirt-repellent, these chemicals are used in numerous everyday products. However, it is precisely because of their properties that PFAS are barely degradable and the “perpetual chemicals” have already been detected in human blood and as well as in breast milk. The EU is therefore looking into restricting PFAS. However, the risks associated with PFAS are presented and assessed in differing ways. Against this background, a new ISOE research project is investigating how various organizations communicate the risks of PFAS. 

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Due to the complexity and diversity of the substance group and an existing lack of knowledge, restricting the use of PFAS is not only a controversial issue in the political arena, but also within the scientific community. There are differing positions and justifications when it comes to the question of whether the entire group of substances should be banned or whether the toxicity of all substances should be assessed individually. These controversies are reflected in the current debate on the restriction of PFAS. 

When we look at research on science communication, however, there have so far been hardly any conceptual and empirical studies on how non-scientific organizations refer to science as a resource for legitimizing their interests in their communication. Against this background, the research project “ChemKom – Strategic science communication on the risks of perpetual chemicals” is dealing with this hitherto neglected topic. The project, headed by ISOE, is conducted together with the Independent Institute for Environmental Issues (UfU) and the University of Hamburg, Department of Social Sciences. 

ISOE scientists are taking on the task of analyzing the internal scientific debate on PFAS and are identifying arguments for and against the regulation of such substances.The ISOE project team is also investigating how universities and non-scientific organizations such as industrial associations, public authorities or NGOs, communicate scientific content about PFAS and how scientific knowledge as well as uncertainties are used for strategic communication. Researchers at Hamburg University are conducting a media analysis in order to find out g which spokespeople, positions and frames shape the topic of PFAS in traditional and social media arenas. This analysis also takes into account the way in which scientific knowledge, or the lack thereof, influences the debate on PFAS.

Improving citizen participation

Finally, scientists from the Independent Institute for Environmental Issues (UfU) take a closer look at the public: How do the citizens addressed view perpetual chemicals? Focus groups and interviews are being conducted to answer this question. That way, a comprehensive picture of the communication about PFAS and its reception can be obtained.

Together with citizens, the project team is testing a dialog format in which they are informed about the different positions on the restriction of PFAS in science, within NGOs, companies and public authorities. On the one hand, the aim of this format is to enable a better participation of citizens in the PFAS debate. On the other hand, it will be examined whether the tested dialog format can contribute to a kind of scientific communication on PFAS in which citizens play a more active role. With this extensive research approach, the project aims to make a contribution to the growing field of strategic science communication done by organizations. In addition, the example of PFAS will be used to develop generalizable findings on how organizations strategically communicate about chemicals and their risks.

The project is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

For more about the project please go to www.isoe.de/en/nc/research/projects/project/chemkom

Scientific contact:

Dr. Johanna Kramm 
Tel. +49 69 707 6919-16

PD Dr. Carolin Völker
Tel. +49 69 707 6919-59

Press contact:

Dr. Nicola Schuldt-Baumgart
Tel. +49 69 707 6919-30