PEPH webinar highlights the power of science in promoting public health
By Eddy Ball
At first glance, chemist Arlene Blum, Ph.D., and civil rights leader Omega Wilson would seem to have little in common. Blum is the executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute and is a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, studying fire retardant chemicals, while Omega Wilson and his West End Revitalization Association (WERA) colleagues, epidemiologists Sacoby Wilson, Ph.D., and Christopher Heaney, Ph.D., are concerned about the health and quality of life impact of environmental injustice on residents of an underserved and marginalized minority community in Mebane, N.C.
Where they intersect, however, is in the use of community-driven research to enhance environmental public health, a keystone concept in the NIEHS Partnerships for Environmental Public Health (PEPH) program. Although separated by nearly 3,000 miles, Blum and the WERA activists came together in cyberspace for a webinar Aug. 8 on “Science-based Decision Making.” The program was sponsored by PEPH and moderated by NIEHS Worker Education and Training Program manager Sharon Beard.
Grounding public health discourse in science and reason
Blum’s message about fire retardant chemicals was clear from the beginning of her talk. She said there is compelling evidence the chemicals are potentially harmful for humans, including decreased fertility, hormone disruption, lowered intelligence quotient, and hyperactivity, and there is little evidence to support industry claims of their effectiveness in significantly reducing flammability.
Referring to California Technical Bulletin (TB) 117, which mandated the use of the chemicals in foam beginning in 1975, she said, “It’s not such a great standard.” TB 117 requires the foam inside furniture to withstand a 12-second exposure to a small open flame. However in a real-life fire, fabric ignites first, exposing the interior foam to a much larger flame.
Mounting evidence of their threat to health led to the ban or voluntary removal of several of the chemicals but, because they persist in homes and in the environment, especially in older furniture, humans are routinely exposed in their homes and workplaces.
Supported by an increasing number of studies from researchers worldwide, the evidence-based research of Blum and others, including NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and several NIEHS grantees, has been used to inform policymakers and has had an effect on regulations and attitudes. Blum pointed to the suspension in 2010 of efforts by the state of California to implement TB 604, which would have set flammability standards for bedding, and this June’s executive order by California Governor Jerry Brown, calling for revision of the state’s regulations requiring furniture and other consumer products to be treated with fire retardant chemicals.
Creating a community-tailored partnership with contextual experts
Omega Wilson is a leading figure in the environmental justice movement who has called for interagency actions to reduce or eliminate environmental contaminants and health care disparities, to enforce health statutes, and to generate new preventive efforts, including expanded enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which protects people from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. Upending the top-down model of academic research, he designed WERA’s community-owned and -managed research (COMR) model, in collaboration with Sacoby Wilson and Heaney, two researchers he first met when they were interns with WERA.
Omega Wilson explained that implementing COMR involved a redefinition of research methodology and ethics, as well as developing new communication strategies. “We had to develop a language that was common to community and researchers,” he said. As the relationship between researchers and community evolved into a partnership, the economic foundation of research also shifted. Unlike traditional research, with publication as the goal, the COMR model values most highly research that can be translated into public health and associated infrastructure improvements in the community, and positions the community as the funded entity.
In this model, community members, who know the people and their needs, work with researchers to gather the data they need to get results. The speakers focused on water quality in Mebane’s West End, where private water systems and septic tanks were the rule. Researchers gathered data about levels of fecal coliform in drinking and surface water, educated government agencies, and took advantage of pro bono legal help to make sure the community’s needs were considered. The result was an expansion of metropolitan water and sewer lines into the West End.
Heaney C, Wilson S, Wilson O, Cooper J, Bumpass N, Snipes M. 2011. Use of community-owned and -managed research to assess the vulnerability of water and sewer services in marginalized and underserved environmental justice communities. J Environ Health 74(1):8-17.
Stapleton HM, Klosterhaus S, Keller A, Ferguson PL, van Bergen S, Cooper E, Webster TF, Blum A. 2011. Identification of flame retardants in polyurethane foam collected from baby products. Environ Sci Technol 45(12):5323-5331.
Promoting science-based decision-making
Research by Blum and other experts on the potentially harmful health effects of exposure to fire retardant chemicals is changing regulations and public attitudes on the use of chemicals to reduce the flammability of consumer products. Despite those successes, issues remain unresolved.
Among them is how to dispose of products permeated with fire retardant chemicals. “Some research really is needed to find out the best way to do it,” Blum said. As she and others have also observed, replacement chemicals should be adequately tested to ensure that they are safe, to avoid the danger of trading one set of health risks for another.
Omega Wilson’s passionate calls for justice, in league with the scientific rigor of researchers Sacoby Wilson and Heaney, are improving health and quality of life for West End residents, and pressuring governments to enforce public health regulations and civil rights legislation. They are also disseminating their successful model of community-academic partnership to groups in other communities experiencing the effects of environmental injustice, such as the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association near Chapel Hill, N.C.
Even as the battle lines shift, however, the larger struggle continues. “One of the central principles [of justice and equality] is equity in power distribution and resources,” Heaney said. Wilson argued that there is a need for formal guidelines to help people get equal protection against environmental injustice under Title VI.