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Slow-motion Technological Disaster Research Builds Toward a Response Model

Posted Oct, 18, 2012

Research led by principal investigator Professor Rebecca Cline, Ph.D. on community members’ psychosocial responses during a slow-motion technological disaster can serve as a model for understanding and responding to future disasters of this nature. The report, authored by Heather Orom, at University at Buffalo, and Dr. Cline was the lead article in the October issue of the Journal of Family Issues. The researchers used focus groups to explore the psychosocial consequences of the Libby, Montana community’s exposure to amphibole asbestos. Slow-motion technological disasters, such as oil spills and human exposure to harmful chemicals, are occurring more frequently, yet evidence-based practices for responding to them do not exist. These disasters differ from natural disasters in numerous ways. Causes are associated with human failure; thus, blame is part of the community’s response. Further, substantial uncertainty surrounds the disaster and community conflict about the seriousness of the disaster typically arises. No clear endpoint exists for the toxic exposure and related health consequences. These differences result in community reactions that differ from those in natural disasters. Thus, different approaches to responding are needed for communities, responding agencies and health care professionals. To read the full article, visit

Human-caused  disasters of this kind are increasing in number, leaving communities such as Libby, Montana to handle the physical health, mental health and social consequences. Cline was the principal investigator for the larger investigation of which the published analysis is a part. The article is titled A Typology of Communication Dynamics in Families Living a Slow-Motion Technological Disaster.”Orom and Cline found five communication patterns in family communication about asbestos-related diseases: Open/Supportive, Silent/Supportive, Open/Conflictual, Silent/Conflictual and Silent/Denial. Whether the communication was open and supportive or silent and conflictual may influence family members’ health behavior, including screening for asbestos-related disease, and their degree of psychosocial distress. The same open conflict about the legitimacy of health problems from asbestos exposure that is found in the community as a whole, for example between strangers, can also be found within some family relationships. In other relationships relatives avoided conversation about asbestos-related disease, similar to the way family members respond to cancer or HIV. Avoiding talking about asbestos-related disease likely occurs in order to avoid distress, anger or conflict among family or community members.

Cline has served in the School of Communication Studies for three years and received her Ph.D. from The Pennsylvania State University. Cline is a nationally recognized leader in health communication, public health and health education based on her research, expertise and experience in graduate education and curriculum development. She has conducted extensive research in the areas of interpersonal communication and health, including psychosocial responses to slow-motion technological disasters and interpersonal communication related to HIV/AIDS prevention.


The School of Communication Studiesis one of the fours schools in the College of Communication and Informationat Kent State University. Founded in 1932, the School is in its eightieth year. The school offers undergraduate degrees in global, health, interpersonal, organizational, public and applied communication. Graduate degrees are offered in interpersonal, mediated and mass communication, health and global communication.