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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 also 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 is committed to reducing environmental health disparities as shown in our new Strategic Plan. Over the past two decades, NIEHS has supported numerous 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 Center Programs, which are made up of highly 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 (NIMHD), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

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 and Disease Prevention Research Centers

The NIEHS and EPA jointly fund the Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers, or Children’s Centers, to study how complex interactions between the environment, genetics, and other factors affect children’s health. In addition to scientific studies, each Center collaborates with various community partners and organizations to inform, advance, and disseminate information for public health protection.

The Children’s Centers have developed a national network of researchers, health care professionals, and community-based groups. This network aims to understand how exposure to environmental toxicants and living in unhealthy environments may contribute to a wide range of adverse health outcomes.

Learn more about their research and their community engagement efforts.

Highlight: Center for Research on Early Childhood Exposure and Development in Puerto Rico (CRECE)

crece logo

Researchers at Northeastern University are studying the impact of exposure to mixtures of environmental contaminants on prenatal and early childhood health and development in an underserved, highly exposed population in Puerto Rico.

Superfund Research Program Multiproject Centers

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 stakeholders, including to the public throgh community outreach and engagement cores, to industry via technology transfer, or to government through partnerships.

Learn more about the SRP 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 are building the capacity of vulnerable communities to identify, prioritize, and resolve environmental and public health issues related to Superfund toxicants. They are also facilitating 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 impact health and disease.

There are more than 20 EHS Core Centers across the country, each with their own strategic vision and scientific focus. However, all EHS Core Centers 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 are studying the impacts of living and working in an urban setting on health. They are working 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 potentially affect a woman’s risk for breast cancer throughout life. Grantees use targeted outreach and risk communication strategies to educate women, health care professionals, advocates, and the general 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, are following 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. Results from this work are being disseminated through community outreach efforts to study participants and the community.

Community Engaged Research

NIEHS fosters community involvement in research grants through both solicited and unsolicited projects that are utilizing collaborative community-engaged research approaches.

Research to Action

The Research to Action (R2A) program brings together community members and environmental and health 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 are studying the many factors that put older adults at increased risk of health impacts resulting from weather extremes. These 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.

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 trained include 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 and how it addresses current and emerging health and safety issues for workers.

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 have protected tribal workers, increased employment opportunities, and built capacity to respond to disasters.

Environmental Health Science Education

NIEHS has a strong focus on environmental health science (EHS) education in a variety of areas. These include K-12 EHS education, education through community engagement cores and training cores through our Center programs, 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 are working 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”. to the program provides instruction and facilitates hands-on learning activities for students on topics including 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

A report titled Advancing Environmental Justice (3MB) 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) was developed as a compendium to the report to provide researchers, communities, and stakeholders with more accessible information about key outcomes reported in environmental justice projects. The annotated bibliography lists and summarizes peer-reviewed research articles from several of the 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
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
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
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
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
P.O. Box 12233
Mail Drop K3-04
Durham, N.C. 27709
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