Partners advance justice and parity in environmental public health
By Ernie Hood
Building on the rich NIEHS legacy of research and initiatives addressing the environmental component of health disparities, more than 230 participants gathered July 29-31 for the Environmental Health Disparities and Environmental Justice Meeting at NIEHS in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
The event brought together grantees, community partners, health care professionals, and government representatives from federal and state agencies, along with potential new partners in research. The meeting was an ideal setting to share, listen, and promote best practices of current and past environmental health disparities and environmental justice research, while also focusing on emerging issues and new directions in the field (see meeting booklet (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/news/newsletter/2013/9/spotlight-partners/file474613_508.pdf) (3MB) for the agenda, abstracts, and additional resources).
Representatives from several federal agencies organized the meeting, including NIEHS, spearheaded by NIEHS Partnerships for Environmental Public Health leads Program Analyst Liam O’Fallon and Health Scientist Administrator Symma Finn, Ph.D., who worked collaboratively with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD); the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health and Indian Health Service.
“We envisioned the meeting as an opportunity to facilitate and strengthen ties among federal partners, and to create connections among the grantees supported by those different agencies,” said O’Fallon.
Building on a foundation of synergy
With such a diverse group of participants and a wide-ranging agenda, the meeting achieved a critical mass of enthusiasm and commitment to advancing work on health disparities, as NIEHS and NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., observed in her opening remarks.
“By working together, we can make the whole much more than the sum of the parts, by conducting research looking not only at the totality of exposures that people endure, but also factoring in new exposures and looking at issues of communication and capacity-building,” she said. “With the commitment to community engagement, dialogue, and capacity-building of all partners, we can have lasting impacts and improved public health.”
Noting that there is a growing body of evidence pointing to the significant influence of non-biological factors, such as social and environmental determinants, NIMHD Director John Ruffin, Ph.D., expressed similar sentiments in his welcoming remarks. “Bringing together such a diverse group of partners and interested collaborators suggests that you recognize the importance of integrating distinct and sometimes fragmented disciplines,” he said. “That has been our mantra at NIMHD, because we realize that it will take more than NIMHD and more than NIH to address health disparities.”
Dovetailing with the strategic plan
As Finn explained, the meeting was designed to promote the implementation of the NIEHS strategic plan goals, particularly goal 6, which focuses on establishing a research agenda related to environmental health disparities, and goal 11, which promotes communication and collaboration among researchers and stakeholders in environmental health sciences. But, with its emphasis on collaborations, partnerships, and integration, there was more to the meeting than simply presentations on the issues, she explained.
“We framed a lot of the sessions in terms of NIEHS strategic goals, but it was a little more open-ended,” Finn told the participants. “Sometimes we tend to put things into categories and then try to fit people’s needs and concerns into those categories, but this was more about asking what’s out there in the community and how we can actually use research to address health disparities.”
The meeting’s format enhanced the empowerment of the community members and partners (see related story), with three sets of concurrent sessions and an extensive report-back session in which participants in the twelve breakout groups developed concrete recommendations — to-do lists that will help set the tone and course for measurable progress.
(Ernie Hood is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)