The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) received the 2015 Hazel M. Johnson Federal Agency Award for Achievement in Advancing Environmental Justice (EJ) from the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (EJ IWG).
Contributions from NIEHS were important in the working group’s decision, according to Sandra Howard, HHS senior environmental health advisor, who accepted the award on behalf of the department.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy presented the award on behalf of the working group, at an Aug. 29 meeting of the group’s principals.
The NIEHS website explains that in the United States, people of color, low-income communities, and tribal populations are disproportionately exposed to environmental conditions that can harm their health. Environmental justice seeks to reduce such disparities.
“There was great appreciation for the Climate Justice Conference and Tribal Ecological Knowledge Workshop,” Howard wrote in an email announcing the award. “Both provided an opportunity for the EJ IWG to interact with stakeholders about climate change and environmental health issues.”
Howard was referring to two 2015 events — the June HHS Climate Justice Conference: Responding to Emerging Health Effects, held at NIEHS, and the December Tribal Ecological Knowledge (TEK) Workshop, held at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
“NIEHS and other HHS agencies are taking meaningful actions to ensure that our programs support the principles of environmental justice,” said Joseph “Chip” Hughes, director of NIEHS Worker Education and Training. “To have that effort recognized with such a prominent award, especially one named for a champion of EJ work, is really rewarding.”
The Climate Justice Conference drew more than 100 scientists, public health professionals from federal, state, and local agencies, and representatives of community nonprofit groups and unions.
Howard helped organize the conference, a key feature of which was the launch of the Climate Resilience Toolkit, a part of the President’s Climate Data Initiative to help individuals, local communities, and vulnerable populations meet the challenges of climate change.
Tribal ecological knowledge
The TEK Workshop, organized in collaboration with tribal representatives and other federal agencies, focused on how tribal ecological knowledge can inform environmental health and biomedical research.
NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., addressed the gathering. “The pressing need with our tribal communities is addressing health disparities and disproportionate risks,” she said. “We want to identify opportunities to incorporate more TEK into research.”
More than 20 years of environmental justice
The working group, created in 1994 by Executive Order 12898, provides a forum for federal agencies to advance environmental justice principles. In 2011, 17 agencies signed a memorandum of understanding and adopted a charter, expanding the scope of the group, which is chaired by the EPA administrator.
In August 2015, NIEHS produced Advancing Environmental Justice, a report that describes 155 agency projects that deal with some aspect of environmental justice. The efforts support 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.
(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison)