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Your Environment. Your Health.

Environmental Health Disparities and Environmental Justice

a woman holding a back and looking at the ractories

Environmental factors such as air and water quality are fundamental determinants of our health and well-being. Environmental factors can lead to disease and health disparities when the places where people live, work, learn, and play are burdened by social inequities.

These social inequities, often referred to as social determinants of health, include differences in individual behaviors, cultural influences, access to health services, economic status, and literacy levels. Environmental health disparities exist when communities exposed to a combination of poor environmental quality and social inequities have more sickness and disease than wealthier, less polluted communities.

NIEHS’ commitment to reducing environmental health disparities is a goal in our Strategic Plan. NIEHS promotes translation of research results into a collective body of knowledge that informs and supports public health action. Over the past two decades, NIEHS has supported research programs, community-engaged activities, and training and education programs to address the disparate health impacts of environmental hazards on disadvantaged communities and ensure environmental health equity.

What NIEHS Is Doing

Center Programs

NIEHS supports research and activities that aim to reduce environmental health disparities and promote environmental justice through a variety of programs, which are made up of interdisciplinary teams of researchers and medical professionals.

Centers of Excellence on Environmental Health Disparities Research

The Centers of Excellence on Environmental Health Disparities Research (EHD Centers) program is a collaborative effort supported by NIEHS, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The EHD Centers encourage basic, epidemiological, and social scientific investigations of disease conditions that significantly burden low socioeconomic populations and those with health disparities. The Centers support research efforts, mentoring, capacity building, research translation, and information dissemination, and are designed to address program-specific research priorities.

Learn more about the EHD Centers and their primary areas of research.

Highlight: Center for Native American Environmental Health Equity Research

Grantees at the University of New Mexico are addressing environmental health disparities through biomedical and environmental research and culturally appropriate community engagement methods. The researchers are focused on exposures to metal mixtures from mining sites.

Children’s Environmental Health Translation Centers

Applying an innovative concept, these new Centers will support scientists, health care professionals, and local communities by developing and testing strategies for communicating information about children’s environmental health. These strategies may include short courses for medical staff, social media tools, ways to report personalized data on environmental exposures, and risk communication methods.

Superfund Research Program

The NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) funds multidisciplinary research on human health and environmental issues related to hazardous substances. Teams of diverse professionals develop, test, and implement unique, solution-oriented approaches to address complex environmental health problems.

SRP grantees proactively communicate their scientific accomplishments to the public through community outreach and engagement cores, to industry via technology transfer, or to government through partnerships.

Learn more about SRP grantees and their community engagement cores.

Community members plant seedlings in a community garden

Community members plant seedlings in a community garden.
(Photo courtesy of Keith Pezzoli)

Highlight: Community Engagement and Urban Agriculture: Addressing Concerns About Toxicants in Soil, Water, and Plants

Grantees at the University of California, San Diego build capacity of vulnerable communities to identify, prioritize, and resolve environmental and public health issues related to Superfund toxicants. They also facilitate knowledge exchange between researchers and local communities to improve nutrition and lower health disparities in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Environmental Health Science Core Centers

The NIEHS Environmental Health Science (EHS) Core Centers Program facilitates scientific collaboration and utilizes cutting-edge technologies to advance understanding about how pollutants and other environmental factors may affect health and disease.

EHS Core Centers across the country, each with their own strategic vision and scientific focus, share common goals in advancing scientific research, promoting community engagement, advancing translational research, and training new researchers.

Learn more about the EHS Core Centers Program and their community engagement cores.

Highlight: Wayne State University Center for Urban Responses to Environmental Stressors (CURES)

Researchers study the impacts of living and working in an urban setting on health. They work with community partners to understand how complex exposures to chemical and non-chemical stressors may lead to diseases, such as asthma and cancer.

Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Program

The Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Program (BCERP), jointly funded by NIEHS and the National Cancer Institute, supports the advancement of research on genetic and environmental factors that could affect a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer. Grantees use targeted communication strategies to educate women, health care professionals, advocates, and the public on ways to reduce breast cancer risk.

Learn more about the BCERP and browse grantee publications.

Highlight: Environmental Chemicals and Postpubertal Breast Composition in a Latino Cohort

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, follow a cohort of Latina girls in Chile to explore how exposure to harmful contaminants during puberty may alter breast composition and susceptibility to breast cancer. Research findings are disseminated through community outreach efforts.

Community Engaged Research

NIEHS fosters community involvement in research through both solicited and unsolicited projects.

Research to Action

The Research to Action (R2A) program brings together community members and researchers to investigate the potential health risks of environmental exposures that are of concern to the community. A key component of the program is the meaningful involvement of communities in both data collection and research translation.

Learn more about the R2A program.

Catherine Karr, Ph.D., coaches a patient through an asthma test at the clinic

Catherine Karr, Ph.D., coaches a patient through an asthma test at the clinic.
(Photo courtesy of Catherine Karr)

Highlight: Home Air In Agriculture - Pediatric Intervention Trial (HAPI)

HAPI is working to reduce childhood asthma among Latino children living in the Yakima Valley of Washington State by combining asthma education and health assessments with an air filter intervention. This project relies heavily on community leadership to identify research questions, maintain day to day conduct of the study, perform health assessments, and educate families.

Climate Change and Human Health

The most vulnerable people — children, the elderly, the poor, and those with underlying health conditions—are at increased risk for health effects from a changing climate. The NIEHS Climate Change and Human Health Research program funds research aimed at understanding the health impacts of climate change and how strategies used to adapt to or lessen climate change might affect health adversely.

Learn more about Climate Change and Human Health Research at NIEHS.

Highlight: Individual and Community Factors Conveying Vulnerability to Weather Extremes

NIEHS funded researchers study many factors that may increase the likelihood that older adults have health problems due to weather extremes. These factors include weather and air pollution interactions, as well as community characteristics, such as socioeconomic status and green space.

Partnerships for Environmental Public Health

Partnerships for Environmental Public Health (PEPH) is a network of scientists, community members, educators, healthcare providers, public health officials, and policymakers who share the goal of increasing the impact of environmental public health research at the local, regional, and national level. PEPH defines environmental public health as the science of conducting and translating research into action to address environmental exposures and health risks of concern to the public.

A PEPH podcast, “Addressing Environmental Health Disparities through Research,” describes health disparities research.

Learn more about PEPH.

Harriet Penayah, right, an elder from St. Lawrence Island, and intern Abigail Nelson, working at the community-based research institute in Gambell, Alaska

Harriet Penayah, right, an elder from St. Lawrence Island, and intern Abigail Nelson, working at the community-based research institute in Gambell, Alaska.
(Photo courtesy of Pam Miller)

Highlight: Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT)

ACAT is working with collaborators to assess multiple routes of exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals in Native Alaskan communities in response to community requests. They are also providing information and training for the community so that they can plan and participate in public health actions.

Training and Education

NIEHS supports training and education through several programs. Training and education programs are important to build capacity to conduct research or enhance environmental health literacy within communities, among underrepresented groups, and among people who may come in to contact with environmental health hazards through their occupations.

Worker Training Program

The NIEHS Worker Training Program (WTP) funds nonprofit organizations to provide health and safety training to workers across the country. Workers come from a broad range of industries and occupations involved in handling or responding to emergency releases of hazardous materials.

Each nonprofit organization funded by WTP focuses on training activities in specific program areas, including Superfund related activities, clean-up of nuclear weapons facilities, and biosafety and infectious disease activities.

Learn more about the WTP.

Highlight: Building Capacity with Native Americans and Alaska Natives to Handle Hazardous Materials and Respond to Emergencies (7MB)

WTP and the National Clearinghouse for Worker Safety and Health Training released a report summarizing training accomplishments for grantees’ work with Native American tribes and Alaska Natives from 2015 to 2017. It describes how training efforts protected tribal workers, increased employment opportunities, and built capacity to respond to disasters.

Environmental Health Science Education

NIEHS focuses on environmental health science (EHS) education in a variety of areas. These include K-12 EHS education, education through the community engagement cores and training cores, summer research experiences for high school and undergraduate students, and technology transfer programs.

Learn more about NIEHS EHS Education.

Highlight: Environmental Health Curriculum in After-School Program

Grantees at Texas A&M University work with collaborators to provide a six-week environmental health curriculum to students at Furr High School in Houston during an after-school program called “Genius Time”. The program provides instruction and facilitates hands-on learning activities for students on topics such as climate change and the relationship between exposure to chemicals in plastic and puberty.

Other NIEHS Contributions to Advancing Environmental Justice

Advancing Environmental Justice Cover Page

The Advancing Environmental Justice (3MB) report highlights the contributions to environmental justice by the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT). It provides a brief history of the environmental justice movement, the role of and funding investments made by DERT, an analysis of those contributions, conclusions, and suggested next steps.

In addition, the Advancing Environmental Justice: Annotated Bibliography (695KB), a compendium to the report, lists and summarizes peer-reviewed research articles from projects highlighted in the report.

Program Team

Program Contact for Worker Training Education

Sharon Beard
Sharon D. Beard, M.S.
Industrial Hygienist
Tel 984-287-3237
Fax 301-451-5595
beard1@niehs.nih.gov
P.O. Box 12233
Mail Drop K3-14
Durham, N.C. 27709

Program Contact for Community Engaged Research

Symma Finn, Ph.D.
Symma Finn, Ph.D.
Program Officer
Tel 984-287-3259
symma.finn@nih.gov
P.O. Box 12233
Mail Drop K3-04
Durham, N.C. 27709

Program Contact for Environmental Epidemiology

Kimberly Ann Gray
Kimberly Gray, Ph.D.
Health Scientist Administrator
Tel 984-287-3262
gray6@niehs.nih.gov
530 Davis Dr
Keystone Building
Durham, NC 27713

Program Contact for Environmental Justice and Partnerships for Environmental Public Health (PEPH)

Liam R. O'Fallon
Liam O'Fallon, M.A.
Health Specialist
Tel 984-287-3298
Fax 919-316-4606
ofallon@niehs.nih.gov
P.O. Box 12233
Mail Drop K3-12
Durham, N.C. 27709
Claudia Thompson
Claudia Thompson, Ph.D.
Chief, Population Health Branch
Tel 984-287-3330
Fax 919-541-4937
thompso1@niehs.nih.gov
P.O. Box 12233
Mail Drop K3-04
Durham, N.C. 27709
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