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Environmental Justice, Community Participation Grantees Annual Meeting

By Eddy Ball
December 2006

David Schwartz
Schwartz outlined his vision for future environmental science research for EJ and CBPR grantees. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Gary Grant
Grantee Gary Grant of the Tillery (N.C.) People's Clinic raised concerns about how EJ projects will fare with the institute's new emphasis on disease pathology. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Rodbell Auditorium was filled to near capacity on October 26 as the Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT) opened its annual meeting on Environmental Justice (EJ) and Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR). Welcoming the researchers to NIEHS, DERT Director Anne Sassaman, Ph.D., commended their successful efforts to "build dialogue and build partnerships" as well as develop a "broader definition of what environmental science and environmental health are all about."

Roy Fleming, Sc.D., National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) director, Research Grants Programs, also welcomed the participants. He explained the process of translational research in EJ and CBPR projects, especially those funded in collaboration between NIOSH and NIEHS.

EJ Program Administrator Liam O'Fallon organized and moderated the two days of panel presentations and workshops. The purpose of the meeting was to highlight the many successes of the projects and to plan for the future. The diverse populations served in the project were reflected in the welcome statement in the meeting's abstract collection. The word "welcome" appeared in the eight languages represented in the projects: English, Navajo, Yupik, Lakota, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Spanish and Cape Verdean Kriolu.

The projects are unique in fostering and strengthening partnerships among researchers, community groups and health care providers to address environmental health issues facing communities. John Sullivan of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston facilitated the keynote panel, which focused on "Environmental Justice in the Wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita." Speakers reported on post-disaster efforts in the Gulf Coast region (see the following story on the project "A Safe Way Back Home").

Other project sites discussed include agricultural fields with high levels of pesticide exposures in California, hog farms in North Carolina, urban environments in Harlem, Lowell, Mass., Chicago and Houston, and abandoned defense sites in Alaska. Among the populations served by the 19 NIEHS-funded projects are inner city Hispanics and African-Americans, Brazilian immigrants, indigenous populations, and Vietnamese and Cape Verdean poor and working poor. Issues ranged from nuclear waste and toxic metals to indoor air quality and asthma.

EJ and CPBR projects have produced hundreds of broad-based coalitions, publications, public health impacts and policy impacts, all of which influence the direction of public discourse and increase awareness of issues. The translational ends of this kind of research are realized most visibly when community groups adopt recommendations and government agencies on the local, state and federal level implement project recommendations into remediation/abatement efforts and regulatory guidelines.

The meeting culminated with NIEHS Director David A. Schwartz' presentation on "Mainstreaming Environmental Health Sciences" and a discussion of future funding opportunities and challenges. Referring to new directions for extramural research in the context of the Strategic Plan, Schwartz outlined ways that EJ and CBPR grantees can take advantage of new grant opportunities through the R01 process for funding their research efforts.

Some participants expressed concern that these community-based projects would be marginalized by the institute's new directions and the language used to describe the institute's new initiatives. Several felt that the movement away from specific EJ and CBPR requests for applications may affect future support from NIEHS.

Schwartz emphasized the institute's ongoing commitment to environmental justice and community-based research. "We're funding an enormous amount of research related to community-based problems," he explained. He then pointed to the Disease Investigation through Specialized Clinically Oriented Ventures in Environmental Research (DISCOVER) program with its emphasis on bringing together basic, clinical and population-based scientists. He said that DISCOVER represents one way NIEHS is incorporating community-based research into interdisciplinary research teams.

"I really do admire what you're doing...[and] what you've accomplished over the past five to ten years," Schwartz concluded. "And I look forward to working with you again."

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