Environmental Health Literacy as Knowing, Feeling, and Believing: Analyzing Linkages between Race, Ethnicity, and Socioeconomic Status and Willingness to Engage in Protective Behaviors against Health Threats

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Feb 25;19(5):2701. doi: 10.3390/ijerph19052701.


This study investigates the relationships between environmental health literacy, the characteristics of people (race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status) associated with health disparities, and people's willingness to engage in protective behaviors against environmental health threats. Environmental health literacy is a framework for capturing the continuum between the knowledge of environmental impacts on public health, and the skills and decisions needed to take health-protective actions. We pay particular attention to three dimensions of environmental health literacy: factual knowledge (knowing the facts), knowledge sufficiency (feeling ready to decide what to do), and response efficacy (believing that protective behaviors work). In June 2020, we collected survey data from North Carolina residents on two topics: the viral infection COVID-19 and industrial contaminants called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). We used their responses to test stepwise regression models with willingness to engage in protective behaviors as a dependent variable and other characteristics as independent variables, including environmental health literacy. For both topics, our results indicated that no disparities emerged according to socioeconomic factors (level of education, household income, or renting one's residence). We observed disparities in willingness according to race, comparing Black to White participants, but not when comparing White to American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander participants nor Hispanic to non-Hispanic participants. The disparities in willingness between Black and White participants persisted until we introduced the variables of environmental health literacy, when the difference between these groups was no longer significant in the final regression models. The findings suggest that focusing on environmental health literacy could bridge a gap in willingness to protect oneself based on factors such as race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status, which have been identified in the environmental health literature as resulting in health disparities.

Keywords: COVID-19; PFAS; efficacy; environmental health literacy; factual knowledge; health disparities; knowledge sufficiency; race and ethnicity; socioeconomic status.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19* / prevention & control
  • Environmental Health
  • Ethnicity*
  • Humans
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Social Class