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Environmental Factor, May 2012

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NIEHS energizes researchers and community in Boston

By Eddy Ball

Willie Mae Bennett-Fripp discusses problem of pesticides in urban neighborhoods

During their trolley tour, the group heard about the problem of pesticides in urban neighborhoods from Willie Mae Bennett-Fripp, right, Committee for Boston Public Housing executive director. “It wasn’t until a bug bomb blew out the doors in public housing that the problem of chemicals became known,” she said. The incident was one of several that prompted Boston to include a pesticide buyback program as a part of integrated pest management in public housing. (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

Boston neighborhood

From the trolley, visitors could see the results of community advocacy for improvements and a smoking ban in public housing to help combat the alarming increase in asthma incidence. Advocates benefited from Harvard University environmental health surveys, lung function tests, and integrated pest management protocols in their petition to make these urban environments healthier. (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

With its most recent community engagement outreach initiative, NIEHS tackled the issues of asthma and air quality in communities within the city of Boston.

Led by NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., a group of NIEHS-funded researchers and Institute representatives toured Boston-area neighborhoods by trolley the afternoon of March 28. Along their route, the group saw firsthand why residents are concerned about their urban environment, along with several examples of how private-public partnerships have helped improve health and quality of life there. That evening, the group joined local government officials and public health advocates for a community forum at the Dorchester House Multi-Service Center.

Promoting quality of life in one of the nation’s oldest cities

Accompanying the NIEHS delegation on the tour were members of NIEHS-supported Environmental Health Sciences Core Centers, who had concluded a two-day meeting in Boston. Several community members escorted the group along their route, as they visited a number of successful urban revitalization projects that have advanced environmental sustainability, fostered historical preservation, improved infrastructure, and expanded affordable housing opportunities in area communities.

The tour ranged from the renovated mixed-use historic Russia Wharf, sited near the location of the 1773 Boston Tea Party, and West Broadway, the first of Boston’s Healthy Public Housing Initiatives, to intergenerational housing and community at Boston’s Hope Properties, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency remediation site that attracted $8.5 million of additional private and public investment. One of the final locations on the tour before the group reached the Dorchester House was the Ashmont T Station, a refurbished Metropolitan Boston Transit Authority intermodal station with six stories of mixed-income housing and ground floor retail space.

Birnbaum addresses community forum about neighborhood concerns

In her brief introductory remarks, Birnbaum described the $41 million NIEHS investment in health research in the state of Massachusetts, most in the greater Boston area, and the Institute’s ongoing commitment to understanding and preventing the host of diseases linked to environmental contaminants. “As I see it, environmental health research is the key to preventing disease,” she said, “because you can’t change your genes, but you can change your environment.”

After noting examples of the range of environmental influences on health, Birnbaum focused on air pollution and its role in respiratory diseases, such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, and neurodevelopment. She pointed to groundbreaking research by area scientists working at Harvard, Boston, and Tufts Universities, as well as ongoing efforts across the nation to promote environmental public health.

In closing, Birnbaum yielded the floor to community members, saying, “My team and I want to hear from you. We want to hear more about what’s happening in your neighborhoods.”

The NIEHS team and other members listened as residents shared their hopes and concerns about their health and the quality of life in their neighborhoods. In response to audience comments, forum panelist James Hunt, chief of Environmental and Energy Services for the city of Boston, underscored the importance of community engagement and environmental health research in becoming aware of problems and in shaping effective government interventions for public health.

“We have used this national research to change policy in the city,” Hunt said. Like his colleagues, Hunt emphasized that he needs input from residents about their needs and about what government and public-private efforts can do to improve the environmental quality of area neighborhoods.

Visitors in restored natural area

Adjacent to the center is a restored natural area in the midst of one of Boston’s oldest and largest neighborhoods. (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., addresses community forum

Along with people from the community, the audience included directors and members of NIEHS-funded centers committed to community engagement as the foundation for environmental science research. (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

Massachusetts Department of Public Health representative Jean Zotter and Mary White of the Boston Healthy Homes and Schools Collaborative Parents of Children with Asthma

Massachusetts Department of Public Health representative Jean Zotter, left, responded to parents’ concern about their children’s respiratory health. Seated beside her is public health advocate Mary White of the Boston Healthy Homes and Schools Collaborative Parents of Children with Asthma. (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and community forum participants

Birnbaum, right, and other panelists spent time afterwards talking with participants in the community forum. (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

Visitors to George Robert White Environmental Conservation Center

Along the tour, visitors saw the George Robert White Environmental Conservation Center, which was built on reclaimed land in Dorchester. Programs there help neighborhood children learn about their connection to the environment. (Photo courtesy of Marilyn Hair of the University of Washington)

Crosswalk at Dorchester House

Improvements to the built environment include a new crosswalk at Dorchester House, site of the NIEHS community forum, which makes negotiating traffic safer for pedestrians. (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

Birnbaum assured the audience that NIEHS is in for the long haul. “We look forward to continuing our support for this research and working with scientists, health care providers, community members, and other partners here.” (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

Boston City Councilman Felix Arroyo

Several of the panelists had no problem relating to community concerns. “I’m not an asthma expert, just a kid who grew up in Boston with asthma,” remarked Boston City Councilman Felix Arroyo, left. (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

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