Community involvement in environmental health research, prioritized in Goal 11 of the NIEHS strategic plan, was highlighted at two coordinated events — the Dec. 5-8 Environmental Health Sciences (EHS) FEST in Durham, North Carolina, and the Dec. 8-9 Research Triangle Environmental Health Collaborative (EHC) Summit in nearby Research Triangle Park.
Community engagement has helped polluted communities begin to find answers for their environmental health problems, according to longtime grantee Beverly Wright, Ph.D., from Dillard University, who spoke in the EHS FEST opening session. For two decades, Wright has worked on projects supported by the NIEHS Worker Training Program (WTP), providing young adults with training in hazardous waste operations and emergency response, with an emphasis on occupational safety, so they could help clean up Superfund sites.
"Community members not only learned a new skill, but they also gained knowledge," said Wright. "We began to have a community that was critically aware of the dangers that their communities had been exposed to, and was also learning ways to protect themselves from these exposures."
According to Wright, community engagement in research has resulted in regulations that lower emissions from landfills and refineries. "When you incorporate the community residents into the collection of data, it absolutely enhances the investigation," she said. "It enhances the trust that communities have in science, and it helps us do better science."
Successful community-engaged research
Grantees at EHS FEST shared novel approaches to community-engaged research and the challenges they overcame. In one session, speakers from community organizations, academia, and government agencies gave 3-minute talks, followed by roundtable discussions. More than 175 participants shared their experiences.
"Community-engaged research is very contextual, and there are many excellent projects," said NIEHS program officer Liam O’Fallon, who leads the Partnerships for Environmental Public Health program. "We selected a roundtable discussion format to hear from as many people as possible. It’s important to understand the different ways partnerships take place, the different exposures and health outcomes, and how challenges can be addressed and solved."
Elsewhere at the conference, attendees exchanged strategies for public outreach and research translation carried out by community engagement cores (CECs) at all NIEHS-funded research centers. CECs use a range of approaches, including sharing public health information, such as web pages on safe fish consumption and avoiding arsenic in food and water. Another approach includes two-way collaboration to inform public health actions, in which community members identify environmental health concerns for study, such as what occurred in a community affected by asbestos contamination.
The event was a rich opportunity for CECs that are part of the new Centers of Excellence in Environmental Health Disparities Research, according to NIEHS program officer Symma Finn, Ph.D. "There is potential for a good deal of cross-fertilization among the centers," she said. "Even though each Center is dealing with different populations, their methods of being culturally appropriate, and how they recruit and maintain their cohorts, can be shared."
Focus on North Carolina
Building on the conversations started at the EHS FEST, stakeholders continued the discussion at the EHC Summit. Community-engaged research often originates with academic researchers. In contrast, citizen science is typically a community-led effort to collect and analyze data, according to a 2015 publication by O’Fallon and Finn.
Omega Wilson, of the West End Revitalization Association (WERA) in Mebane, North Carolina, said citizen science can be used to monitor municipal compliance with public health statutes and civil rights laws, called science for compliance. Wilson and his colleague, Sacoby Wilson, Ph.D., from the University of Maryland at College Park, spoke about their community owned and managed research to improve access to safe drinking water and sewer services in North Carolina.
In smaller groups, participants discussed uses of data and technology; ethical, legal, and social issues; and research conduct. For instance, in a discussion on ensuring that citizen scientists collect good quality data, group members shared strategies such as training and use of standardized data collection procedures.
Another approach, crowd-sourcing, was brought up by Caren Cooper, Ph.D., from North Carolina State University, who suggested it as a helpful tool for monitoring environmental conditions. Many people contribute observations, so the large number of data points helps validate the information.
"Citizen science and community research is a huge change from how environmental health was conducted 50 years ago, when scientists would just tell the citizens what they should do," NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., said at the EHC Summit. "Now we’ve all moved to the understanding that you can’t do environmental health research unless our communities and our citizens are engaged from the very beginning."
(Virginia Guidry, Ph.D., is a technical writer and public information specialist in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison, and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)