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Environmental Factor, November 2012

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Building bridges between risk assessment and environmental justice

By Eddy Ball

Steve Wing, Ph.D.

Working with the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN) and Concerned Citizens of Tillery, Wing has helped residents of eastern North Carolina oppose industrial farming practices that he said create environmental injustices. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Omega Wilson

Wilson criticized what he called the guinea pig syndrome, when researchers come into a community, conduct their studies, and then fail to take the next step to protect public health. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The Research Triangle Chapter of the Society for Risk Analysis sponsored a meeting Oct. 15 that may be one sign of a new working relationship between environmental justice (EJ) advocates and risk assessment scientists.

The meeting, hosted at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at its Research Triangle Park, N.C., headquarters, brought together grass-roots advocates, NIEHS and EPA environmental health science researchers and risk assessment specialists, and others in the RTP scientific community. The daylong discussion gave participants an opportunity to discover a common ground for moving community engagement research forward, to eliminate environmental injustices that persist 18 years after President Bill Clinton signed his famous Executive Order 12898 in 1994.

Welcoming remarks by Andrew Geller, Ph.D., deputy national program director of the EPA Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program, offered participants historical perspective on the issues involved and framed the discussion to follow with the directive by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to make EJ a priority at the agency.

Community perspectives on research

The first speaker on the agenda, NIEHS grantee Steve Wing, Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) Gillings School of Global Public Health, set the tone for the meeting, by reflecting on the gap caused by the different socioeconomic backgrounds that scientists and community groups bring to EJ work. Despite his long relationship with such research in eastern North Carolina, Wing explained that he and other scientists need to approach the communities where they plan to conduct research without preconceptions.

“I don’t have the life experience of people who are facing environmental injustice,” Wing said. He also pointed to the high stakes involved. “Some people benefit because others are being denied benefits.”

The community representatives who followed Wing’s presentation offered concrete examples of those mixed benefits in their own communities. They also described their need for what they called community-engaged actionable research — scientific studies they can use to implement grass-roots change to improve environmental public health in their communities.

Activist Omega Wilson, director of the West End Revitalization Association in Mebane, N.C., opened the community perspective portion of the workshop with a keynote address on opposition to a proposed road project in his community, and efforts by his group to gain equal access to clean water and sanitation for residents. Criticizing researcher-initiated studies that support publications and tenure, but do little to advance community interests, Wilson called for more grant support for community-initiated investigations. “We need funding for ground-truthing research,” he said.

Five other speakers addressed the environmental injustices created by goods movement, landfills, and industrial hog production for residents and workers. “It [hog feces and the rendering of dead animals] may smell like money to the owners,” Devon Hall, of the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH), told the audience, “but not to the worker making $8 an hour.”

Science to address EJ

The afternoon keynote address by former NIEHS Director Ken Olden, Ph.D., helped transition the meeting from its community perspective to a consideration of how risk assessment scientists can strive to bridge the gap between the research and EJ communities. Olden, who is currently director of the EPA National Center for Environmental Assessment, is a pioneer in EJ, as well as a cancer biologist who has studied epigenetic profiles in the neighborhoods of New York City.

Although most of the work described by the scientists who followed Olden failed to strictly meet the definition of community-initiated actionable research, it was clear the risk assessment scientists had been listening to their community counterparts. As they discussed ongoing work on air quality and asthma, Martha Sue Caraway, M.D., of Duke University, and Kelly Duncan, Ph.D., from UNC, referred several times to the ideas Wilson and his colleagues had outlined that morning.

The final scientific talk of the day, by geophysicist  Timothy Barzyk, Ph.D. explored community-initiated research applications for the broad range of risk assessment tools now available, or in development, by EPA. These include geographic information system programs that are capable of creating maps to integrate exposure data, potential environmental hazards, and health statistics at the community level, producing the kind of actionable research Wilson described.

Steve Wing, Ph.D., and Symma Finn, Ph.D.

As the meeting broke for lunch, Wing talked with SPHB Health Scientist Administrator Symma Finn, Ph.D., who was one of several observers from NIEHS attending the meeting. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Kelly Duncan, Ph.D.

UNC researcher Duncan described work underway in her EPA-funded study, “The RTP-Area African American Children’s Asthma Study.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Andrew Geller, Ph.D.

Geller summed up a new direction in thinking about risk assessment and EJ. “Communities can identify their own problems,” he said in his closing remarks. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Dothula Baron-Hall, Naeema Muhammad, and Devon Hall

Community speakers, left to right, Dothula Baron-Hall of REACH, Naeema Muhammad of NCEJN, and Hall shared stories of living conditions in communities where caged animal farming is widespread. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Ken Olden, Ph.D., and Chip Hughes

Just before his presentation, Olden, left, sat with NIEHS WETP Director Chip Hughes. One theme in Olden’s talk was that EJ is about health disparities. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Timothy Barzyk, Ph.D.

Barzyk titled his presentation, appropriately, “Bridging the Gap Between Cumulative Risk and Environmental Justice: Tools and Applications.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Looking ahead

Fittingly, the final speakers of the day were NIEHS Susceptibility and Population Health Branch (SPHB) Chief Claudia Thompson, Ph.D., and Geller, with presentations on “NIEHS and U.S. EPA: Science Planning to Address Environmental Justice.”

Geller described EPA’s role in cross-agency efforts to identify best practices for encouraging actionable research in EJ initiatives. He also noted that EPA and NIH are cofunding 10 Centers of Excellence in health disparities around the country, and he looked forward to the implementation of EJ 2014, a roadmap that will help EPA integrate environmental justice into the agency’s programs.

Thompson described the long-standing NIEHS commitment to EJ that has resulted in nearly two decades of capacity building, outreach and training, policy change, and publications. She also outlined the NIEHS Partnership for Environmental Public Health program, a one-NIEHS umbrella initiative to foster extramural, Worker Education and Training, Program (WETP), and Superfund Research Programs, by promoting EJ through outreach, education, and community-driven research. She referred to the Institute’s deep-rooted commitment to EJ and equal access to a healthy environment through its 2012-2017 Strategic Plan.(7MB)

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