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Environmental Factor, September 2015

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Environmental justice featured in new NIEHS report

By John Yewell

Advancing Environmental Justice

The report is available as a free PDF download from the NIEHS Environmental Health Disparities and Environmental Justice Web page. (Photo courtesy of NIEHS)

Liam Ofallon

“The report tells an important story about the valuable contributions our grantees have made to environmental justice issues,” said O’Fallon. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

For the first time, a new report from the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT) highlights the institute’s contributions to reducing environmental health disparities and supporting environmental justice.

The 80-page report, “Advancing Environmental Justice,” presents the results of an analysis of projects funded by NIEHS from 1998 to 2012. It also includes a brief history of the environmental justice movement, an evaluation of the role of NIEHS funding, and suggested next steps.

Spreading the word and moving forward

The analysis revealed 155 projects that concentrated on some aspect of environmental justice, many of which used community-engaged research to address a range of environmental hazards. “The report gives a nice snapshot of results from a lot of incredible work across the country,” said Liam O’Fallon, a program analyst with DERT and coordinator of the NIEHS Partnerships for Environmental Public Health (PEPH) program, which produced the report.

The project began in 2012 to fill an information gap. “We knew that NIEHS had a long history of supporting environmental justice work through several programs, but we had never taken a look at the totality of our grants,” O’Fallon said. “We wanted to be able to understand and communicate the outcomes all our efforts.”

O’Fallon acknowledged that methodological limitations may have caused some projects to be missed. Regardless, he said, the number and variety of grant projects focused on environmental justice was wide ranging. In fact, 23 different grant mechanisms were represented among the projects examined.

The effort supports Goal 6 of the NIEHS strategic plan — to understand the disproportionate risks of disease in vulnerable populations, and to define and support public health and prevention solutions in affected populations.

Emphasis on community involvement

O’Fallon noted that one of the most noteworthy findings was the value of community-engaged research and the importance of developing the skills of community groups and researchers to work effectively together.

“These projects highlight the importance of working in partnership with community residents,” he said. “Community members have local knowledge and skills that help environmental health research succeed, and they help to inform policy, which can have a lasting public health impact.”

For example, the report highlights a Texas project, Communities Organized Against Asthma and Lead, through which several organizations collaborated to identify and characterize the risks of lead poisoning and asthma in children. The report states, “As the project evolved, close collaboration with the City of Houston Health and Human Services Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program ensured that project findings and recommendations informed public policy. Their results also helped researchers understand the need to consider alternate methods to measure asthma prevalence within the Hispanic population.” An appendix to the report provides more detail.

Along with the report, PEPH produced an annotated bibliography of 2,146 peer-reviewed studies generated by grantees. The bibliography is designed to make environmental justice information more accessible to researchers, communities, and stakeholders.

(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison)

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