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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

January 2018

New centers work to lessen environmental health disparities

One year into research and connecting with communities, grantees at centers to research environmental health disparities met to share progress.

After two years of research and connecting with communities, grantees in the new Centers of Excellence in Environmental Health Disparities (EHD) Research program met Dec. 4-5 to share their progress. The centers are jointly funded by NIEHS, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The federal partners support five centers (see sidebar), each focused on a different population. EPA hosted the meeting in Albuquerque, which is home to the Center for Native American Environmental Health Equity Research, at the University of New Mexico.

Symma Finn, Ph.D., NIEHS program officer for the centers, said they have already made excellent progress. “This kind of research requires a team with varying types of expertise, and it was clear from the presentations that the concept is working,” she said.

Liam O’Fallon, NIEHS coordinator of the community engagement cores for the program agreed. “We heard about a great deal of cross-collaboration that has already ha clppened, and that will continue,” he said.

Representatives from the five EHD centers Representatives from the five EHD centers shared their latest findings and discussed collaborations. (Photo courtesy of Liam O’Fallon)

Building on success

During presentations and a poster session, research teams from the five centers discussed progress and shared early findings. Participants also broke into small groups to focus on specific approaches to maximizing the impact of their work.

  • Translating center research into clinical or community responses.
  • Publishing results of collaborations across two or more centers.
  • Data harmonization, so studies can be compared or compiled.
  • Working with community partners.

Research questions consider the community as a whole, as well as individual health. Therefore, active engagement of relevant communities is a core element of each program, and scientists report findings back to the participants. By also studying ways to engage participants and share findings, the centers hope to improve community health and lessen existing disparities.

Gold King Mine Spill community meetings

After the EHD centers meeting, researchers from the center at the University of Arizona (UA) traveled to two sites in New Mexico to report back to community members on a study of the exposure, risk, and risk perceptions from the 2015 Gold King Mine Spill. Finn and O’Fallon accompanied the team, which was led by Paloma Beamer, Ph.D., and Karletta Chief, Ph.D., both from UA.

In addition to the center, team members include regional EPA staff, Dine College personnel, water quality experts, and others. In the team’s latest update, researchers reported early findings on lead, arsenic, and manganese levels in surface and well water, soil, and house dust, and in blood and urine samples collected by Navajo community health workers. To date, most of the analyses show low or no levels of concern.

Research team members in Shiprock Research team members in Shiprock included, from left, Nina Chester, Executive Staff Assistant for the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President; Neilroy Singer, from Dine College; a student trainee; Beamer; Finn; Chief; two student trainees; and O’Fallon. (Photo courtesy of Liam O’Fallon)

The meetings, called community teach-ins, were held at Navajo Nation chapter houses in Shiprock and Upper Fruitland, New Mexico. “The site visits deepened our understanding of how challenging it is to translate these concepts into Navajo, underlining the importance of culturally appropriate communication,” Finn explained. Communication affects risk perception, which influences response to environmental emergencies such as mine spills.

According to Finn, some land was neither tilled nor planted due to concern about the contaminants entering the food supply. Now there is a shortage of crops to harvest. The study team is developing a mine response resilience toolkit with funds from a foundation grant. “Community health workers will be trained to share information door to door, so that in the case of another spill, residents will know who to contact, what to do,” Finn said.

O’Fallon said that fortunate timing enabled him and Finn to attend the meetings. “We rarely [are able to] attend such community events, and these were happening when we were going to be there for the centers meeting,” he said, adding that it was important to listen and understand the perspectives of the community residents.


Shiprock Shiprock is a massive formation in northern New Mexico for which the town is named. (Photo courtesy of Liam O’Fallon)
Shiprock Chapter House Inside the Shiprock Chapter House, a display memorializes Navajo veterans, including World War II Codetalkers and recipients of the Purple Heart. (Photo courtesy of Symma Finn)
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