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National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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Global Environmental Health Day 2017 Focuses on Community-Engaged Research Around the World

By Tara Failey

The NIEHS held its second annual Global Environmental Health (GEH) Day on September 15 in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. The event served as an opportunity to bring together global environmental health professionals, NIEHS staff, researchers, policy experts, and local students. This year's theme was community-engaged research (CEnR) efforts and successes, highlighting approaches and tools to empower communities to deepen their involvement in environmental health research.

Castranio welcomed attendees

Castranio welcomed attendees.
(Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Trisha Castranio, lead organizer of the meeting, provided the opening welcome: “Our goal for GEH Day is to share what we’ve learned about community-engaged research at NIEHS over the past decades and at the same time learn from others working in low- and middle-income countries about how to best engage and empower people through the conduct of research.” John Balbus, M.D., NIEHS senior advisor for public health, opened the meeting with a snapshot of the NIEHS Global Environmental Health Program and the NIEHS-World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Sciences.

The day featured a variety of sessions, including panels titled “Community-Engaged Research – Local and Global” and “Citizen Science around the Globe,” a video session highlighting citizen science projects, a poster session featuring “Voices from the Field,” and short talks by the poster presenters. Topics explored opportunities to address environmental health problems, especially aiming to improve the lives of vulnerable populations, both in the U.S. and around the world.

Empowering local and global communities

Keynote speaker Sujata Saunik, principal secretary of the government of Maharashtra, spoke about successful efforts to improve health indicators in India’s second-most populous state. She shared multiple examples of projects that she initiated that involve the community, including efforts to improve sanitation and hygiene, a tree planning campaign in response to drought in Maharastra, and a student-led effort to remove plastic waste in community villages. To help explain her philosophy, she provided a collection of Legos forming a town hall. “Engagement of citizens is a brick-by-brick process, requiring patience, trust, and persistence,” said Saunik.

As Saunik described, Maharashtra state suffers from a variety of poor health indicators, ranging from poor nourishment to high rates of diarrheal disease. However, she’s witnessed the great impact made through community involvement, such as encouraging kids to collect plastic in their villages, involving citizens in a heat warning system, or working with the community to build wastewater systems. “I’ve found that the most important part of my work is to empower the community to be part of the journey, provide services, and build partnerships. Magic happens when people get involved,” said Saunik.

Secretary Saunik explains her efforts

Secretary Saunik explained many of her efforts to involve the community in public health initiatives.
(Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Other participants spoke about U.S.-based efforts to work with their communities. Gabriel Filippeli, Ph.D., professor of earth sciences at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, discussed an effort to address lead poisoning in Indianapolis, Indiana. Since a growing number of urban gardens are located on lead-contaminated soil, their Garden Safe, Garden Well project engages the community, asking citizens to provide soil samples.

Through this approach, researchers are able to obtain data on lead contamination without going into people’s backyards. The Indiana research team can then provide guidance to community members on how to remediate their garden, if necessary, and how to reduce their lead exposure. “Through this work, we translate what we know about science exposure into tools that are effective in communities, providing a win-win,” said Filippeli.

Building capacity through cutting-edge tools

To further build local and global capacity, panelists presented on key tools used to facilitate community-engaged research and citizen science. Ronald Williams, an air climate and energy project leader with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), discussed existing and emerging air sensor technologies. He presented case studies on how citizen science has been supported through use of EPA’s Air Sensor Toolbox, a resource to help the public learn more about air sensors and how to use them to understand community air quality.

Discussions about air sensors were complemented by a focus on mobile apps and devices. Russanne Low, Ph.D., senior earth scientist for education and outreach at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, spoke about her work to develop and promote the Globe Observer app’s Mosquito Habitat Mapper. This app enables users to map, count, and identify mosquito breeding sites, helping manage disease risk in communities. Currently, Low is piloting use of the app with school kids in cities in Brazil and Peru. “As we get students involved in this global model, they connect with scientists and teachers, and become integrated in place-based research in their communities, which is also a great way to improve science literacy,” said Low.

While mobile devices present an opportunity to engage citizens, Jim Herrington, Ph.D., a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, pointed out how reliance on them presents a dilemma. By 2022, over 270 million people in the U.S. and roughly 70 percent of the world’s population will own smartphones. With smartphone usage on the rise and the increase in advances in technology creating demand for the latest and greatest models, the amount of electrical and electronic waste (e-waste) produced is equally growing enormously around the globe.

audience in Rodbell

To emphasize his discussion of the prevalence of electronic devices, Herrington started his presentation by encouraging a group selfie.
(Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Preparing for the future to address global challenges

Keith Martin, M.D., executive director of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health, reflected on the scope of current global challenges. Martin asked the audience, “How do we address the compelling challenge of our time: having a healthy planet and healthy people? How do you create a more sustainable planet for 9.3 billion people by 2050?”

While this challenge is staggering, researchers, experts, and public health practitioners expressed hope that community engagement could make a difference. “We need to do our best to empower citizens, and give them tools to do work,” said Martin. “To do this, we must capture the sweet spot between aligning the needs of a community, and develop the cohort of citizens who are knowledgeable about research.”

Reflecting on the day, Balbus highlighted the theme of local to global and the strength of the Triangle region for partnerships to advance the translation of NIEHS research globally. “Through the Global Environmental Health Program and GEH Day, we aim to achieve the NIEHS vision to provide global leadership in environmental health,” said Balbus. “And there’s no better place to start than NIEHS’ own backyard in Research Triangle Park, with its wealth of organizations working on public health around the world.”

The GEH Day agenda and program booklet, including abstracts of the talks, are available on the meeting webpage. Videos of the presentations will be posted in the coming weeks.