NIEHS grant recipients funded through the Research to Action program met Jan. 12-13 at NIEHS to report results, share research progress, and explore new collaborations. Nearly 50 representatives from community organizations, academic institutions, and government agencies participated.
“This grant program is about academia and community working together,” said Guy Williams, president and chief executive officer of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. “At its essence, we want to increase the knowledge base for the public at large, and make it simpler for communities to be proactive on their own behalf.”
The program reflects the NIEHS commitment to research that can address environmental inequities or health disparities, according to Symma Finn, Ph.D., director of the Research to Action program. She explained that these projects require partnerships between scientists and community members. And research findings must be used to inform concrete public health actions that benefit the partner communities affected by pollution or other environmental health concerns.
The value of scientific evidence
Participants described how scientific evidence of local environmental and health concerns can prompt favorable changes, especially in communities that have a history of excess pollution.
“We used to go to community meetings all the time and say, ‘Please don’t zone this for our community, we have enough industrial operations,’ but it would go through because we didn’t have any way to show the impact,” said Omar Muhammad, president of the Low Country Alliance for Model Communities in South Carolina. The alliance is the community partner for a study conducted by Sacoby Wilson, Ph.D., from the University of Maryland. “But now when we come with a map or a chart showing data about what’s happening in our community, we get more response from elected officials, saying, ‘Hey, these people have a point’.”
Luis Olmedo and other members of the Comite Civico del Valle had been advocating for better air quality in their rural southern California community for years, with limited success. That changed when they partnered with Paul English, Ph.D., state environmental epidemiologist at the California Department of Public Health, to collect air quality data.
“We want the science to tell its own story. And for us that’s worked very well because it allows us to have a more credible voice,” said Olmedo.
A range of public health actions
Some studies promote action on the individual level, for example, by providing concrete health benefits for research participants. Increases in airborne pollutants from large-scale livestock facilities were found to be related to increased asthma symptoms and decreased lung function among asthmatic children. So Catherine Karr, M.D., Ph.D., from the University of Washington, and her partners from the Northwest Community Education Center-KDNA Radio, the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, and Heritage University launched an intervention study to reduce asthma triggers at home.
Other studies measured the effects of broader public health interventions. In Cincinnati, a collaboration between Pat Ryan, Ph.D., from the University of Cincinnati, and his partners from the Cincinnati Public Schools and the Cincinnati Health Department found that air pollutant concentrations at schools decreased after they conducted an anti-idling campaign with school bus drivers. The campaign included instruction about idling at annual driver trainings and students distributing reminder cards to drivers who idled for too long at schools.
Merging science and action effectively
Some community partners said that the requirement for action, in addition to the traditional goal of publishing scientific results, is what convinced them to become involved in the research. Wilson emphasized that successful projects require authentic, transformative, equitable partnerships, which take a lot of time and energy to achieve.
Christine Chaisson, Ph.D., of The Lifeline Group said that ideally, “community members are not advisors, they are the experts, and should have a tremendous impact on the way the science is designed.” She added, “This can be a very hard sell in the trenches of science.”
Elizabeth Yeampierre, J.D., executive director of Brooklyn-based UPROSE, and former member of the NIEHS National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council, is working with the Rand Corporation, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, and the Lifeline Group to help local small businesses, such as mechanics and auto body shops, use more environmentally sound chemical storage and waste disposal practices. The research partnership aims to improve neighborhood environmental conditions and actively increase local knowledge while retaining industries that provide jobs in areas with affordable housing.
Loftus C, Yost M, Sampson P, Arias G, Torres E, Vasquez VB, Bhatti P, Karr C. 2015. Regional PM2.5 and asthma morbidity in an agricultural community: a panel study. Environ Res 136:505–512.
Loftus C, Yost M, Sampson P, Torres E, Arias G, Breckwich Vasquez V, Hartin K, Armstrong J, Tchong-French M, Vedal S, Bhatti P, Karr C. 2015. Ambient ammonia exposures in an agricultural community and pediatric asthma morbidity. Epidemiology. 26(6):794–801.
Ryan PH, Reponen T, Simmons M, Yermakov M, Sharkey K, Garland-Porter D, Eghbalnia C, Grinshpun SA. 2013. The impact of an anti-idling campaign on outdoor air quality at four urban schools. Environ Sci Process Impacts 15(11):2030–2037.
(Virginia Guidry, Ph.D., is a technical writer and public information specialist in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)