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Environmental Factor

May 2011

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Hot Zone summit challenges environmental injustices

By Ed Kang
May 2011

A man speaks to an audience as three women behind him on stage listen

Bullard, foreground, is considered by many to be the father of environmental justice (EJ). His many books include "Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality," which has become standard reading in the EJ field. At the table behind him, left to right, are Wright, Johnson-Thompson, and Beard. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Beard)

The joint annual meeting of the National Institute of Science (NIS) and Beta Kappa Chi (BKX) Scientific Honor Society( Exit NIEHS included a luncheon panel session March 25, featuring NIEHS Worker Education and Training Program (WETP) staff and distinguished grantees addressing lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The overall theme for the 2011 conference, held March 23-27 in Atlanta, was "Effect of Environmental Pollutants on the Biosphere." Organizers received conference grant funding from National Institutes of Health.

The luncheon session, titled "The Hot Zone Summit: Environmental Health Impact and Outcome of the Gulf Oil Spill," provided the audience of 500 students and faculty from 40 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) insights into the ongoing adversity plaguing Gulf communities. The summit opened with a short video developed by the NIS, titled "Environmental Injustices - Impacts and Outcomes," focusing on such environmental tragedies as the Gulf oil spill, Hurricane Katrina, Cancer Alley, and the concept of environmental justice.

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Oil spill to the landfill

One such injustice stems from the disposal of thousands of tons of BP oil spill waste. While much media attention has focused on clean-up efforts and the health and safety of workers, not much detail has been disseminated about landfills in predominantly underrepresented communities that are filling up with oil and other toxic by-products.

Robert Bullard, Ph.D., director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, addressed the disparity in his keynote talk at the session, "Geography of Vulnerability:  Tracking Environmental and Public Health Impact of the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Disaster."  Bullard spoke passionately about the dumping of oil spill waste in African-American and other communities of color, adding insult to areas already strained by environmental tragedy. Bullard, a long-time NIEHS WETP grantee, called upon the combined efforts of government, healthcare, research institutions and communities to work collaboratively to mitigate the public health impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

Bullard's sentiment was echoed in remarks by Beverly Wright, Ph.D., professor of sociology and founding director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University.  Wright, also an NIEHS WETP grantee, pointed out the urgent need to involve Gulf Coast communities in matters of environmental health.

NIEHS on the front lines

Sharon Beard, industrial hygeniest in the NIEHS WETP, rounded out the session by highlighting the Institute's efforts through the Minority Worker Training Program to educate and deploy workers from local communities during moments of crisis. In her overview of NIEHS' response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, she spoke of Institute-supported efforts that resulted in more than 150,000 workers being trained and the development of an oil spill response booklet.  Beard also discussed the recently initiated GuLF STUDY, which will evaluate the long-term health effects of the Gulf oil spill in workers and others. This study will influence the public health strategy in Gulf communities and for future oil spills, as part of the ongoing NIEHS' response to the oil spill.

The panel was chaired by Marian Johnson-Thompson, Ph.D., professor emerita in the Department of Biology at the University of the District of Columbia and former director of Education and Biomedical Research Development at NIEHS. In addition to Bullard, Wright, and Beard, the panel included Gail Mattox, M.D., chairperson and professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Morehouse School of Medicine, and Timothy Fields, Jr., senior vice president of MDB, Inc., contractor for WETP and the NIEHS Superfund Research Program.

(Ed Kang is a public affairs specialist in the Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

Partnership tackles effect of pollutants on the biosphere

Established in 1943, the NIS is one of the oldest national scientific membership organizations to serve students and staff from HBCUs. The NIS strives to increase the numbers of well-trained minority scientists by providing academic support, research experience, internship opportunities, and career advice. Since 1921, the BKX society has promoted student scientific fellowship at nearly all HBCUs. Today, over 50 BKX chapters and 11,000 members promote scholarship in pure and applied sciences.

This year marks the 68th joint meeting of these two independent scientific organizations, providing a national forum for minority scientists and students to come together, exchange information, and present research data. Originally a meeting for African-American students and scientists, the meeting has expanded to embrace several different minority institutions including Universidad Metropolitana in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which consistently participates. Ninety percent of the students who attend the meetings are science, technology, engineering, or math undergraduates in their sophomore, junior, or senior years.

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