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Keywords:

  • Air pollution;
  • perception;
  • risk communication

Communication about air pollution can help reduce health risks, but a scattered, largely qualitative literature on air pollution beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors raises questions about its effectiveness. A telephone survey of Paterson, New Jersey (USA) residents tested four hypotheses aimed toward integrating these findings. Self-reported sheltering indoors during high pollution, the recommended strategy, was predicted by perceived air quality and self-reported “sensitivity” to air pollution. Nearly a quarter of the sample reported mandatory outdoor activity (e.g., work) that might increase their exposures, but this factor did not significantly affect self-reported sheltering. Perceptions of air quality did not correlate strongly with official monitoring data (U.S. Air Quality Index (AQI)); even people who regularly sought AQI data relied upon sensory cues to high pollution, and secondarily upon health cues. Use of sensory and health cues, definitions of what makes someone sensitive to air pollution, and (less strongly) definitions of vulnerability to air pollution varied widely. The minority aware of the AQI were more likely to seek it if they had illnesses or saw themselves in the targeted AQI audience, yet less likely if they believed themselves sensitive to pollution. However, their sense of the AQI's match to their own experience was driven by whether they used sensory (yes) or health (no) cues, not by illness status. Some urban residents might not have access to AQI data, but this barrier seems outweighed by need to bridge interpretive gaps over definitions of air pollution, sensory perception, vulnerability, and health consequences.