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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

April 2016

Climate Challenge winners collaborate across disciplines

Winners of the NIEHS climate challenge designed tools to help decision-makers protect public health in the face of climate change.

On Feb. 23, NIEHS announced winners of its Climate Change and Environmental Exposures Challenge, naming a first place winner in both the national and local categories, and two second place winners in the local category, with a total of $30,000 in prizes.

The challenge invited innovators and environmental health specialists alike to develop data visualization tools and maps that will help decision-makers and the general public respond to the environmental health risks presented by climate change. NIEHS has posted links to the winning tools on the webpage linked above.

“The study of how climate change impacts environmental exposures has been relatively neglected,” said John Balbus, M.D., NIEHS senior advisor for public health. “The challenge provided new tools for understanding and responding to developments that may alter human exposure to pollutants and toxins.”

The challenge, issued Sept. 15, was part of the Climate and Health Innovation Challenge Series. Entries were judged on scientific validity, innovation and usability, and clarity of purpose and audience. Because there was a tie for second in the local category, there was no second place winner in the national category.

National winner from Virginia

First place in the national category was awarded to a group headed by Julia Gohlke, Ph.D., from the Department of Population Health Sciences at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Gohlke collaborated with Samarth Swarup, Ph.D., and Dawen Xie of the university’s Biocomplexity Institute.

Their entry, PIE Viz: Populations, Infrastructures, and Exposures Visualization Tool, combines data on power outages and air pollution with extreme heat records and social isolation metrics. The maps will help users identify areas most vulnerable to combined climate and air pollution risks.

“We had a lot of fun creating PIE Viz,” said Gohlke. “The work resulted in many new ideas for other research collaborations.”

Local first place winner features Indianapolis

First place in the local category went to Yi Wang, Ph.D., from the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He partnered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Toxics Release Inventory Program and the Society for Chemical Hazard Communication.

The Effects of Climate Change on the Future of Local Communities uses Indianapolis climate and health data to reveal potential health and environmental risks, from flooding, extreme heat, and air pollution, to the disadvantaged Near West neighborhood. “The award will help us develop this tool to include more climate change events, health outcomes, and environmental hazards,” Wang said. “We are looking for collaborators.”

Second place prizes highlight San Francisco and St. Louis

The San Francisco Department of Public Health Climate and Health Program took home one of the local second place prizes, with their entry San Francisco Climate and Health Profile.

“We hope this award helps spread the message that climate change is happening now, and that we all need to be actively preparing for the health impacts,” said Cynthia Comerford, manager of planning and fiscal policy for the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

The other second-place winning entry was Up With the Waters, developed by Amanda Koltz, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, and her brother Steve Koltz, a web development fellow at The Flatiron School in New York City.

“The NIEHS challenge was an opportunity to combine my interest in the exposure risks of environmental contamination with how ecosystems respond to human-mediated disturbances, like climate change,” said Amanda Koltz. “I was also excited about the chance to create a resource for the residents of St. Louis.”

Crossing disciplines

The judges were impressed with the innovative nature of all the entries, and the usefulness of the tools that resulted. “The challenge was an exciting incentive,” said Kimberly Thigpen Tart, J.D., program analyst in the NIEHS Office of Policy, Planning, and Evaluation. “It focused the attention and energy of people across disciplines to engage with their communities in solving environmental health problems.”

The challenge series is a partnership between NIEHS, Esri, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Business Management and Transformation. The winning tools will be incorporated into the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit.

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

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