By Lee Cannon
Health equity is a key aspect of protecting public health, especially of underserved and underrepresented communities, in the face of many global changes. Some communities are more exposed to climate-related threats than others – due to location, race, income, age, or other conditions – which creates differences in physical and mental health outcomes. Addressing health equity can help mitigate the effects of climate-driven pollution, natural disasters, extreme heat, and more, and ensure the most vulnerable communities gain needed attention and resources to cope with the health effects of a changing climate.
Thanks to President Biden’s Executive Order 14008: Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad (EO 14008) signed in January 2021, endeavors are underway across the federal government to seek out and address the health impacts of climate change, especially where those impacts are affecting some communities more than others. Two organizations in particular under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) – the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Environmental Career Worker Training Program (ECWTP) – are making great strides toward health equity goals.
New Office Develops Tools for Equity
OCCHE was established to provide leadership across HHS, and create partnerships outside HHS, to protect the most vulnerable communities from climate change impacts. This office also aims to recommend ways to reduce the health sector’s contributions to the climate crisis.
As part of the office’s efforts to address health equity, OCCHE has developed the Climate and Health Outlook. The Outlook is a health equity-focused resource designed for local governments, public health professionals, and the public. It was issued monthly over the summer and will now transition to a seasonal schedule. The Outlook provides vital information on health effects of extreme heat, wildfires, drought, hurricanes, and other threats. By highlighting areas of the country and specific populations at greatest risk of adverse impacts, it shows where attention and investment are needed most.
Jenny Keroack, a policy analyst at OCCHE, explained the product responds to calls from experts for a single resource that joins the hazard-forecasting capacities of different government offices and maps those hazards to potential health effects. To answer those calls, OCCHE established partnerships with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Interagency Fire Center, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, plus many more.
Keroack and her colleagues collect information from their partners and synthesize it into each Outlook, emphasizing the urgent hazard of that season, such as extreme heat in the summer and hurricanes in the fall.
OCCHE focuses on health equity by highlighting the counties and demographic groups that experience greater risk in a dedicated section in the Outlook.
“We’re trying to support the important work going on the state and local levels as communities face climate-related hazards,” said Keroack. She noted OCCHE has received positive feedback on the Outlook so far and is constantly working new ideas and user requests into the resource.
Environmental Justice Promotes Health Equity
The Justice40 Initiative, part of EO 14008, laid out a goal to deliver 40% of the benefits from federal investments in climate change and related issues to disadvantaged communities.
The NIEHS Environmental Career Worker Training Program (ECWTP) was selected as one of the Justice40 Initiative’s 13 priority programs for HHS. ECWTP’s goals are to promote sustainable employment opportunities, spur economic development, tackle occupational health disparities, and promote environmental justice.
NIEHS Programs Promote Equity
NIEHS maintains a firm commitment to pursuing health equity, a goal that permeates the Strategic Plan, through seeking to address environmental health disparities and promote environmental justice in all its programs.
In addition to the ECWTP and larger Worker Training Program, NIEHS funds the Centers of Excellence on Environmental Health Disparities Research (EHD Centers) program, a collaborative effort of NIEHS, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). EHD Centers support research, mentoring, capacity building, research translation, and information dissemination about disease conditions that significantly burden populations with health disparities.
NIEHS also supports research into the health impacts of climate change. Several NIEHS grantees focus on the most vulnerable populations, which are often the populations already experiencing health disparities.
ECWTP, founded in 1995 as the Minority Worker Training Program, funds organizations that increase career opportunities for disadvantaged and underrepresented individuals in environmental restoration, construction, emergency response, and hazardous materials and waste handling.
The ECWTP program provides career-specific training and life-skills guidance and has been effective in helping unemployed, underemployed, homeless, and formerly incarcerated people successfully train for careers.
“We are very excited our program was selected,” said Sharon D. Beard, director of the NIEHS Worker Training Program. “It is not only a recognition of how much we have accomplished over the past 27 years, but it is also an acknowledgement of how great our potential is for expansion. This selection, and the investment it represents, means we can offer even more help to impacted communities.”
The program has prepared more than 13,500 workers to launch careers that reap benefits for themselves and their families, as well as for communities burdened by environmental hazards.
Joining the President’s Justice40 Initiative will allow ECWTP to reach even more disadvantaged workers with pre-employment and life-skills training. These workers will, in turn, bring health benefits to their own and other communities through their work to neutralize environmental health threats. The program fact sheet provides more information on the details of the program and the lives transformed by the training.
Further Equity Resources
NIEHS engages in other health equity efforts that advance the institute’s goals of promoting environmental health research to serve historically underserved communities. Periodic workshops and seminars provide scientific and lay audiences with opportunities to learn about health equity work. Results and resources produced during these events are permanently and freely available to the public on the NIEHS website at the links below.
- The Advancing Environmental Health Equity Through Implementation Science workshop, in which researchers shared how to use implementation science approaches and identified gaps and opportunities.
- The Environmental Impacts on Women’s Health Disparities and Reproductive Health workshop that gathered researchers to examine the intersections of environmental exposures and gender, racial, and ethnic disparities.
- The ongoing work of the Social and Environmental Determinants of Health Equity Group, which investigates how physical and social environments influence racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities in cardiometabolic health and wellbeing.