Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Graduate School of Public Health - Faculty of Health & Behavioural Sciences


This thesis explores residents’ accounts of their experience of dealing with living in an environment that has been designated as potentially hazardous because of lead contamination, and which potentially placed them, but especially their children, in the category ‘at risk’. This qualitative study investigated how people come to decisions about health risks in the environment and how they evaluate these within a community and family context. The study was carried out in three Australian communities identified as contaminated by lead, Port Pirie, Broken Hill and Port Kembla, that have varying degrees of lead contamination and different levels of programs dealing with lead abatement, providing the opportunity for a comparative analysis of responses to risk in relation to exposure and abatement. Lead in the environment is potentially an emotive issue, since its effects are most significant in a vulnerable group, preschool aged children. There also has been significant scientific and policy debate about what constitutes a hazardous level of lead in blood, and there has been a constant downward revision of ‘safe’ blood lead levels. Lead contamination therefore provides an excellent case study to explore community responses to expert risk assessment. The study used the ‘risk society’ macro-theory of Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens, especially their development of the concepts of risk, reflexivity, individualization and trust, as a framework for understanding residents’ responses at the micro-level in the community. Findings showed that risk has become normalised and globalised, so that risk from lead is just one risk among many that participants in the study saw as routine in their everyday lives. The study also showed the importance of the individualisation of many aspects of contemporary life. Participants, as parents, saw themselves as individually responsible for life planning, for managing their children’s paths through life until they were old enough to take on the role, and health planning was one part of this, a project in which all members of society were engaged. This individualisation of all aspects of life and health, resulted in a redefinition of environmental risk as a lifestyle risk that moved responsibility for its management away from government and health agencies onto the individual. One part of the normalisation and globalisation of risk was related to the dependence on abstract expert systems, such as the health system or agencies involved in environmental monitoring. The thesis shows the importance of trust in relation to risk, in the relationship between the institutions responsible for promoting the health of the population, and especially the importance of the mechanisms by which trust is established and maintained. Finally, it is argued that risk was not so much acceptable as weighed in the balance, so that residents balanced individualised management of risk against living in the community, social relations, employment and other aspects of social life.

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