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Your Environment. Your Health.

2016 Grantee Highlights

Tipawan Reed – Building Program Capacity and Economic Self-Sufficiency for Underserved Populations

December 12, 2016

Tipawan “Tippi” Reed, the former president and founder of OAI, Inc., a Chicago-based nonprofit agency, has devoted her career to providing education and workforce development to disadvantaged people for nearly 40 years. Since 1995, Reed also has been the Principal Investigator of the OAI Hazardous Waste Worker Training Program (HWWTP) Consortium and the Environmental Career Worker Training Program (ECWTP) Consortium. However, she has taken a winding path to get to where she is.

Tipawan Reed
Tipawan Reed
(Photo courtesy of OAI, Inc.)

Born in Thailand to Vietnamese parents, Reed always knew she wanted to do something that would have a positive impact. From an early age, she held a deep fascination with language, culture, and peoples of the world – which inspired her to move to the United States on her own when she was just 18. After completing academic degrees in cultural anthropology and adult education, she began her career teaching English as a second language and wrote grant proposals for a community college’s adult education program. Her passion to assist underserved populations continued to grow, compelling her to establish OAI. During its early stages, OAI focused on providing services to immigrants and refugees, especially those from Indochina.

“My career began with the focus of serving immigrants and refugees because that was my background, and I could relate to their struggles. I speak Lao, Thai, Vietnamese, French, and Spanish. So, I thought why not use my skills and passion in this area to help others advance. So, that’s how OAI began,” says Reed.

Expanding OAI, Inc.’s Mission

Working extensively with refugees in the 1980s, Reed observed that many nonprofits, faith-based groups, and employers provided refugee-resettlement services focused on housing or mental health. Reed thought this offered a temporary fix, rather than providing a path to self-sufficiency. Furthermore, these services often lacked overarching coordination between groups. Seeking to implement a more holistic model, Reed’s “eureka” moment came when she thought of integrating job developers into her program design. This involved a consortium of job developers who could seek out people with needed skills.

Eventually, this shift led Reed to adopt a larger vision of what her group could become. As she says, “I realized that our earlier programs and models don’t just work for Indochinese refugees; they work for all of the other disadvantaged populations who have similar barriers.”

Thus, in 1995, OAI successfully applied for grant money from the NIEHS Worker Training Program (WTP), leading the group to provide environmental remediation training to underserved, minority populations. Today, OAI is a driving force for its HWWTP Consortium, which delivers training to workers on hazardous waste removal and emergency response. OAI also leads its ECWTP Consortium, assisting groups that include minorities, women, ex-offenders, and veterans, who are facing barriers to employment. Both programs support underserved populations and address public health disparities while also protecting workers and communities from exposure to hazardous substances.

Having an Impact

Since receiving its initial NIEHS funding in 1995, OAI’s contributions under its WTP Consortia have been tremendous. The group has engaged individuals from diverse ethnic, racial, work history, and academic backgrounds through the effective implementation of the WTP Consortia. OAI also has expanded its expertise from delivering basic Hazard Awareness-level training in the Chicago area to conducting health and safety training courses at all levels for both first responders and disadvantaged workers nationwide.

Donna McDaniel, Tippi Reed, Vincent Grady, and Sean Philips

From left to right: Donna McDaniel, Tippi Reed, Vincent Grady, and Sean Philips. Photo courtesy of OAI, Inc.
(Photo courtesy of OAI, Inc.)

The group also has increased dramatically its training capacity. For instance, the number of courses delivered annually under HWWT has jumped from 40 in 1995 to 163 in 2014. During the same period, the number of students served annually has grown more than threefold, from 701 to 2,825. The instructional hours per year leapt from 2,839 in 1995 to 44,004 in 2014.

Through this work, OAI is touching lives. As an example, Reed mentioned a graduate of a program it sponsored, who came to that program with a GED but without formal education and only limited experience. The program motivated her to seek further education, and she now is a Safety Officer for a prominent construction contractor.

Ultimate Vision

When asked about her long-term vision, Reed said she seeks to build sustainability and capacity in all aspects of OAI’s operation. She aims to increase the reach of the services her group offers, build the tracking of program graduates, develop and apply innovative practices, and improve program evaluation. To advance the evaluation component, OAI is launching a study to examine the economic impact of its work. Reed said, “We want to really know how our work is leading to economic self-sufficiency over the long term. To build on what we’ve been doing already, we want to look at the return on investment with real data.”

Moving forward, Reed remains determined to continue having an impact, saying “I believe I’m doing what I was put on earth to do. This work is what I was meant to do, so I hope the vision and values that my group has sought to foster continue to flourish.”


Jill E. Johnston, Ph.D. – Addressing Environmental Justice Issues Through Community Health Research

November 29, 2016

Jill E. Johnston

Jill Johnston, Ph.D., is studying lead exposures in children living in near the former Exide Technologies battery smelter in Los Angeles.
(Photo courtesy of Jill Johnston)

Jill Johnston, Ph.D., is the newly appointed assistant professor of Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California (USC), where she also serves as co-director of the NIEHS-funded USC Environmental Health Sciences Center’s Community Outreach and Engagement Core. She is committed to using environmental health research and strong community partnerships to illuminate, evaluate, and address issues of social and environmental justice in the United States.

Johnston was first drawn into environmental justice issues through researching the health disparities between wealthier communities and poor and minority communities, especially those subject to toxic environmental exposures from nearby industrial fossil fuel energy facilities and coal-burning power plants.

For Johnston, a key issue in exploring any community health or environmental justice issue is early engagement with affected community members. “I think involvement and input from community stakeholders is key to this work, and it is important for them to bring up the issues and explain the problems of their community,” explained Johnston. “Many of the research questions that I have looked into actually started from the community making these inquiries.”

Environmental Justice and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations in North Carolina

Johnston earned M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in environmental sciences and engineering from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where her research continued to focus on environmental justice and community health disparities. For her postdoctoral fellowship, Johnston worked with Steve Wing, Ph.D., a professor and researcher at UNC focusing on environmental justice in food and agriculture systems. Their work evaluated the effects of industrial livestock operations on the disproportionately poor and minority communities next to high-volume hog production operations in North Carolina.

“We performed analysis to look at the disproportionate permitting of industrial hog operations within communities with higher concentrations of people of color and to investigate the civil rights and environmental justice implications of the permits,” said Johnston (see Wing & Grant highlight). Johnston and her colleagues responded to requests from community organizations and local residents by analyzing and interpreting data directly linked to the health concerns of potentially affected people.

Childhood and Prenatal Lead Exposure in Southeast Los Angeles

In her current position at USC, Johnston is investigating lead exposures in children living in southeast Los Angeles communities near the former Exide Technologies lead-acid battery smelter. The battery recycler, processed 11 million batteries each year and operated for decades without proper environmental review.

Exide Technologies lead-acid battery smelter

The Exide Technologies lead-acid battery smelter processed 11 million batteries annually and operated for decades without proper environmental review.
(Photo courtesy of Jill Johnston)

“Our outreach program has been working with these communities for some time around issues of traffic pollutions and goods movement,” said Johnston. “A few years ago they became concerned about arsenic and lead emissions from the Exide battery smelter, especially when it became apparent that the plant had been violating environmental regulations for years.”

Although the community was happy that the plant was shut down in 2015, they were concerned that blood lead levels measured after the plant’s closure wouldn’t reflect their past exposures. “After they approached us with their concerns, we told them about a technique that uses baby teeth to examine historical exposure,” Johnston said. “They were interested in using this approach to understand the lead and metal exposures experienced in their community."

Using a technique developed by Manish Arora, Ph.D., from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Johnston and her colleagues are analyzing the baby teeth of children in neighborhoods that surround the smelter. This approach will provide a record of environmental lead exposures reaching back through fetal and early childhood development.

Johnston’s team worked with community members to develop this infographic

Johnston’s team worked with community members to develop this infographic that explains how baby teeth can be used to examine metal exposure history.
(Photo courtesy of Jill Johnston)

Johnston hypothesizes that children from the poor Latino communities surrounding the former plant were exposed to hazardous levels of lead through inhalation as well as contact with contaminated soil and dust. So far, her research has demonstrated that soils in residential areas next to the former plant are highly contaminated and potentially hazardous to the population.

“The community has been very active in publicizing the study and helping us develop infographics that describe smelter exposures and explain why we might ask for teeth to look at metals exposure history,” said Johnston. “We’ve conducted collaborative workshops with the community, and organizations have told their members about our study and encouraged people to get involved.”

After analyzing the baby teeth, Johnston’s team plans to present their findings at community meetings and to work closely with the community to ensure all the results are understandable.

Community Partnerships to Motivate Policy Change

For Johnston, environmental health research is an important tool, which when coupled with community-level action and engagement, can inform changes in public policy to improve community health. In the case of the toxic environment surrounding the former Exide Technologies plant, the public outcry, community-university partnership and scientific data have motivated the state of California to set aside $176 million for remediation of the contaminated site and surrounding neighborhoods.

“We’re working with the community, county, and city officials to make sure that before the money ever gets into anyone’s hands we come up with a plan for what this remediation should look like and which strategies are best to use,” she said. Beyond remediation, she wants to ensure that the next environmental health issue with urban lead exposure is averted before it becomes a health crisis. “We want to work with the various state and federal agencies that have jurisdiction over environmental lead exposures to bring together the policy stakeholders with scientific researchers to prevent the next problem from occurring before it’s been going on for decades.”

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Matthew Dellinger, Ph.D. – Using Creative Approaches to Engage Native Americans in the Upper Great Lakes

Matthew Dellinger, Ph.D.
Matthew Dellinger, Ph.D.

November 29, 2016

Matthew Dellinger, Ph.D., is greatly concerned about environmental contamination threatening the ability for Native Americans to fully engage with their environment and ecosystems. Using his own Native American style paintings and documentary filmmaking techniques, Dellinger is working to provide culturally tailored fish consumption advice that not only reduces health risks for Native Americans in the upper great lakes region, but also promotes healthy relationships with their natural resources.

“Everything that I’m trying to inject into the research — the documentary filmmaking, storytelling, and paintings — is done to insert a cultural undertone that is a nod to other ways of knowing things that resonant with people,” said Dellinger, assistant professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Since childhood, Dellinger has had close ties to Native Americans in the upper great lakes region, which includes the area around Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Superior. His mother’s family owned and operated a summer camp for children near a Native American reservation in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, where he often spent his summers. Dellinger’s father, John Dellinger, Ph.D., is a toxicologist and epidemiologist who worked with Native Americans as part of his research.

“My family was already integrated in the area, and I was introduced to Native American communities as a child,” said Dellinger. “When I approached these communities regarding my own research they already knew who I was and were familiar with my family, which helped them to trust in what I was doing.”

Promoting health literacy

Dellinger’s research is focused on understanding and increasing the health literacy of the Chippewa, Ottowa, and Potawatomi tribes who live in the upper great lakes. He wants to identify the best ways to offer culturally tailored fish consumption advice to tribal communities.

“You can’t underestimate how important hunting and fishing are to Native American life and also to rural life,” said Dellinger. “People in the tribal communities are aware of contamination in their environment and understand that it is a hazard to their health. What they aren’t as sure about is where they should focus their energies and whether they can still fish.”

Dellinger smart phone application

Dellinger designed a smart phone application that incorporates his woodland-style paintings while providing easy access to fish consumption information.
(Photo courtesy of Matthew Dellinger)

For years, Dellinger has worked with the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority and the Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan to provide culturally tailored fish consumption advice based on contaminant measurements from fish in the Great Lakes. For his latest endeavor, Dellinger designed a smart phone application that provides easy access to fish consumption information. He incorporated his own woodland-style paintings of fish into the app to present fish consumption information in an aesthetically pleasing and culturally relevant way.

“Brochures, advisories, and large tables with cross referencing makes people feel demoralized and like they can’t engage in fishing,” said Dellinger. “The woodland style paintings of fish speak to these groups because they look like something that is part of their culture.”

With funding from the NIEHS, Dellinger developed the smart phone app and tested it with focus groups. The initial findings suggest that when fish consumption information is provided in an easy-to-access and aesthetically pleasing way people feel encouraged to engage in recreational and commercial fishing and to consume fish in a safe way by avoiding highly contaminated fish.

Engaging Native Americans in research

Dellinger also uses his creative skills in his work with the Great Lakes Native American Research Center for Health (NARCH). With funding from the NIH and Indian Health Service, this Center promotes partnerships between American Indian tribes or tribally based organizations to develop and implement high quality, culturally sensitive, and community-supported research.

Dellinger’s involvement in Great Lakes NARCH goes back to 2010, when he initially used his documentary filmmaking skills to help the Center present its strengths and Native American voices in a promotional video. He continues to help create digital stories that show the success of interns working at Great Lakes NARCH and is now the acting program director for the Center.

The Great Lakes NARCH features a variety of training and mentoring programs that facilitate Native American participation in research. For example, the Center introduces Native American high school students to environmental science by letting them participate in research conducted in the Great Lakes region.

“When I was boy, we lived on the Great Lakes, where my father took me out on a research boat to help collect fish and take water samples,” said Dellinger. “At a young age, he fostered in me a love of the Great Lakes and their ecosystems. I was really fortunate to receive this exposure because it sparked my interest in research. This approach worked on me, and it is also extremely effective for the kids from the reservation.”

In their own words

Dellinger has plans to use his documentary filmmaking skills to incorporate digital storytelling videos into outreach efforts linked to his future research. Storytelling involves having community members create and distribute their own stories in their own words with a goal of promoting health and environmental protection.

“Storytelling is a culturally sensitive way to go about something no matter what culture you’re working with, but it particularly resonates with the tribes because they use a different form of storytelling to pass down their tribal history, knowledge, and traditions,” he said.

Dellinger said that although providing people with culturally sensitive information via a smartphone or brochure is more effective than previously used methods, using storytelling to impart this information will likely bring even more impact.

“The digital story engages participants — you get their perspective, there is validation for them, and they own the rights to the material,” said Dellinger. “This approach involves getting people who are part of the community to help, in a very substantial way, create the message. It is a very proactive and collaborative way to get people to share information.”

Matthew Dellinger was one of the experts who presented during the PEPH webinar on The Complexity of Communicating Risk in the Context of Fish Consumption.

Henry Spliethoff – Helping Communities Adopt Healthy Urban Gardening Practices

November 16, 2016

Henry Spliethoff

Henry Spliethoff, a research scientist for the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH), is an expert in exposure assessment and environmental health.
(Photo courtesy of Henry Spliethoff)

Henry Spliethoff, a research scientist for the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH), has long been interested in the impact of chemicals in the environment on human health. Spliethoff has used this passion to study how exposure to common urban contaminants, like lead, in New York City (NYC) gardens may affect gardeners and household members eating the garden’s produce.

Spliethoff became motivated to study urban gardens after seeing how community gardens profoundly enrich New York City communities. “Every garden is individualized to reflect the personality and interest of the gardeners,” said Spliethoff. “These gardens also contribute a great deal to the community, serving as gathering spaces, offering opportunities for recreation, and improving health and nutrition.”

Although community gardens present a myriad of benefits, there has been concern about potential adverse health effects, as these gardens are often in areas where soil has been contaminated by past use of leaded gasoline and paint, building demolition, and resuspension of dust and soil from nearby areas.

In 2008, New York City gardeners and environmental justice stakeholders asked Cornell University and NYSDOH for help in understanding how soil contamination is affecting food grown in community gardens and for assistance in reducing their exposure. Cornell and NYSDOH began responding to these concerns by developing outreach materials and holding public meetings with gardeners. After receiving an NIEHS Research to Action grant, Cornell and NYSDOH formalized their partnership to research and address this topic further.

Researching lead exposures in urban gardens

With funding from the Research to Action program, and help from NYC Parks GreenThumb and other community partners, the NYSDOH/Cornell research team collected and measured lead concentrations in 564 soil samples, 159 vegetable specimens, and 58 eggs from approximately 60 community gardens in New York City. Lead exposure has been linked to a wide range of adverse health effects, including nerve disorders, behavioral effects, and irreversible neurological damage.

To develop lead exposure estimates, the team combined this data with information obtained by asking gardeners about their vegetable consumption and time spent in the garden. Lead exposure was estimated for adult gardeners, gardeners’ children who play in the gardens, and gardeners’ adult (non-gardening) household members. Results indicate that New York City community gardener and household member exposure is typically well below U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommendations. Nevertheless, about 10 percent of gardeners and 40 percent of gardeners’ children who play in these urban gardens are estimated to exceed those recommendations.

According to the study’s estimates, adult gardeners have an average total lead intake via all pathways of 6.7 micrograms per day, which is well below the FDA thresholds for oral exposure, or provisional total tolerable intakes (PTTIs), of 75 micrograms per day for adults and 25 micrograms per day for pregnant women. For adult gardeners, exposure to lead occurs primarily from eating vegetables which can become contaminated with lead from surrounding soil and windblown dust. Furthermore, the researchers found fruits and vegetables have differing levels of lead: root or leafy vegetables tend to have more lead, while fruiting vegetables, like tomatoes, have less.

The study also estimates that children playing in urban gardens take in about 4.4 micrograms of lead per day, below the FDA PTTI of 6 micrograms per day. The scientists found that a key source of exposure for children was swallowing soil on dirty hands and through soil tracked into the home.

Based upon the study’s findings, Spliethoff says those working in urban community gardens should be careful but not alarmed. “The study shows that there is likely some lead exposure that results from urban gardening, but there are steps that can be taken to lessen this exposure,” said Spliethoff.

Actions to limit lead exposures in urban gardens

To limit contaminant exposure, Spliethoff recommends a number of healthy gardening practices, including using raised garden beds with clean soil and compost, amending soil, and avoiding use of treated wood in garden beds. Gardeners also should consider having their soil tested for the presence of toxic heavy metals, like lead. To limit lead exposure in areas accessible to young children, such as those between raised beds, Spliethoff suggests covering soil with landscape fabric, grass, or mulch, since doing so reduces direct soil contact. Gardeners also should brush soil off before coming into the house, wash their hands before eating and after gardening, and carefully wash and/ or peel vegetables before eating them.

While offering these tips to gardeners, Spliethoff also emphasizes that the responsibility to reduce exposure should not only be on the gardener: municipalities and organizations also play a role. For instance, organizations can develop policies requiring that clean soil be brought into a garden if existing soil lead levels are above a certain threshold. Cities can assign zoning requirements for urban agriculture so that highly contaminated areas are avoided. “Ideally, gardeners should be able to walk into their urban community garden knowing it is largely contaminant free.”

With consideration of available methods to reduce exposure, Spliethoff hopes that urban gardening and other forms of urban agriculture continue having a positive, beneficial impact in communities around the country.

Related Links

David Bellinger, Ph.D. – Examining Lead Exposure from a Societal Perspective

David Bellinger

David Bellinger serves on several World Health Organization committees concerned with issues tied to lead exposure.
(Photo courtesy of David Bellinger)

October 28, 2016

For more than four decades David Bellinger, Ph.D., has studied the effects of lead exposure on the neurodevelopment of children. His interest in the topic began when he took a position working in the lab of Herbert Needleman, M.D. at the Boston Children’s Hospital. He started working there just after the publication of Needleman’s landmark 1979 paper connecting lead exposure in children with lower IQ scores, poorer language function, and attention problems.

“I discovered that I loved environmental health and liked the sense of being involved in research that has a real-world impact,” said Bellinger. “Lead exposure directly affects people’s health and well-being, especially in children.”

When Needleman left Boston Children’s Hospital to take a position at the University of Pittsburgh, Bellinger took over some of his grants and has continued studying lead exposure in children ever since. Today, Bellinger is a Professor at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

With NIEHS funding, Bellinger studied school age children who experienced exposure to a mixture of heavy metals around an abandoned lead mining site in Oklahoma that is now part of the Tar Creek Superfund site. Bellinger was also the principal investigator of the NIEHS-funded Harvard School of Public Health Superfund Research Center, which focused on integrating data collected from studies in Tar Creek, Oklahoma, Mexico City, and Bangladesh to better understand the effects of exposures to mixtures of heavy metals. Data from this work is still being analyzed.

Communicating big-picture concepts

David Bellinger and Herbert Needleman

Bellinger (right) began studying lead exposure in the lab of Herbert Needleman (center), who was instrumental in creating the field of children’s environmental health.
(Photo courtesy of David Bellinger)

In the last few years, Bellinger has shifted his focus to communicating big-picture concepts surrounding lead exposure. He found that it was sometimes difficult for people to understand why lead exposure is so bad, since an individual child exposed to lead might experience a loss of only 2 to 3 IQ points, which doesn’t affect normal functioning. Thus, Bellinger began to think of ways to communicate to stakeholders why lead exposure is important at a societal level.

He looked to other chronic diseases to see how research findings were communicated to emphasize how small changes in an individual’s health take on greater importance when viewed at a population level. He found that for hypertension, for example, lowering average blood pressure by only a few points decreased the number of people who meet hypertension criteria by half. As he detailed in a paper, this same idea could be applied to lead exposure. If an exposure to lead decreased the average IQ in a population from 100 to 95, this would double the number of people scoring below 70, which defines mild intellectual disability.

“A five point decrease in average IQ would bring a large increase in the number of people who would require interventions or remedial services of some kind and also dramatically reduce the number of high performers, resulting in a societal loss in terms of intellectual resources,” Bellinger said.

Ranking IQ risk factors

Bellinger continued pursuing a broader view of common environmental exposures. Using data from published papers, he created a scale that ranked various risks to brain development and their effects on the collective IQ of children in the U.S. The findings, detailed in an Environmental Health Perspectives review, showed that a highly prevalent exposure of low severity such as lead could have a higher impact at a population level than a high impact exposure that rarely occurs such as traumatic brain injury.

“With lead, every child has a detectable blood level, so every child is contributing something to this total IQ loss,” he said. “We tend to focus on screening children to identify those with the highest blood lead levels. While that is appropriate, it is not enough because children with very low blood lead levels are contributing most of the lost IQ points.”

A developmental perspective

Buildings in Flint, Michigan

Bellinger says that the Flint water crisis show that the lead problem has never gone away.
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In one of his most recent publications, Bellinger argues that a developmental perspective is needed when examining early-life exposures that can affect brain development. “When trying to capture the overall societal burden of an exposure like lead, we can’t just stop at IQ,” he said. “We have to think about all the downstream things that happen to a child that is cognitively impaired.”

The paper also emphasizes that the common view that early effects of lead exposure are permanent and irreversible is doing children a disservice. “There are decision points in a developmental trajectory, and well-timed appropriate interventions could change those trajectories,” he explained. “Although we should still focus on primary prevention of exposure, if exposure has occurred, we still have opportunities to influence the long term outcome.”

Bellinger says that this type of perspective could help provide appropriate interventions that could reduce the effects of lead exposure for the children exposed in Flint, Michigan.

“I would like to see us tackle lead once and for all. It has been with us far too long,” said Bellinger. “The Flint water crisis shows us that the problem has never really gone away. While there are measures, such as adding anticorrosives to water, that can suppress the problem, if someone makes the wrong decision to stop the treatment, the problem becomes painfully apparent once more. If you de-lead a home or replace the lead service line that brings water into a home, it is never going to affect another child.”

Patrice Sutton – Addressing Environmental Exposures of Pregnant Women

October 12, 2016

Patrice Sutton

Patrice Sutton
“A great strength of our Center is there is such a strong commitment among our collaborators to taking action and making a difference in people’s lives.”
(Photo courtesy of Patrice Sutton)

Patrice Sutton of the University of California, San Francisco Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment (USCF PRHE), is passionate about reducing the exposure to toxic chemicals among pregnant women to protect children’s health.

There are tens of thousands of chemicals on the market globally, most of which have not undergone rigorous testing for safety. Exposure to even small amounts of toxic environmental chemicals during pregnancy and breastfeeding can have large impacts on children during these critical windows of development, including miscarriage, reduced IQ, hyperactivity disorders, and childhood cancer.

Involving health professionals and communicating with patients

Sutton directs the Community Outreach and Translation Core (COTC) of UCSF’s Pregnancy Exposures to Environmental Chemicals (PEEC) Children’s Center, which is funded by NIEHS and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. One of the key elements of the Center’s focus is involving reproductive health professionals in environmental health. “People tend to become particularly interested in their exposures to toxic chemicals during pregnancy, so routine prenatal medical appointments become a really important teachable moment,” Sutton said. “Reproductive health professionals are perfectly poised to take action in critical windows of susceptibility to toxic chemicals and help patients understand the role their environment plays in their health.”

To help reproductive health professionals talk to their patients about environmental exposures and answer their questions, the Center has developed a series of bilingual brochures and social media tools, and is now collaborating on transforming the Center’s brochures into an app, called SafetyNest.

PRHE Staff

PRHE staff at translation retreat. “Since the inception of our program, we’ve been committed to translating the research, advancing public policy, and improving health outcomes,” said Sutton.
(Photo courtesy of Patrice Sutton)

Sutton and her colleagues are also working to make environmental health a core component of medical curricula. All of these activities are linked to the Center’s work to embed environmental health into the entire fabric of health care.

“In addition to reproductive health outcomes, we know that the environment plays a large role in the global increase of non-communicable diseases like asthma, childhood cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease,” Sutton said. “Doctors and other health professionals are starting to see firsthand how the environment directly impacts the health of their patients, and as a result, doctors around the world are now very engaged and wanting to take action.”

Informing policy

Sutton and her colleagues at the Children’s Center have been incredibly successful in building collaborations with reproductive health professionals to improve patient education and interventions. Additionally, their strategy focuses on the essential role that policy plays in prevention. As such, this partnership goes one step further to leverage the prestigious voices of health professionals to weigh in on public policies to protect pregnant women and children from exposure to toxic chemicals. “Reproductive health professionals have an important role in advocating for stronger public policy to protect the health of their patients,” Sutton emphasized.

Establishing a framework for taking action on the science

Sutton and her colleagues observed a common challenge when working to inform policy: the lack of an adequate framework for considering exposures to a wide variety of chemicals and handling the scientific uncertainty associated with the complex environment we live in. Sutton and her colleagues saw this challenge as an opportunity. “We can’t allow scientific uncertainty to cause us to do nothing, as the status quo means people are exposed to many and varied toxic chemicals every day,” she said. “One of the important aspects of the Center’s work is looking at how we can take action in the face of scientific uncertainty to improve public health.”

The first step in this process was to improve the available framework for decision making. “We wanted to take the decision making tools used in clinical science and translate them to environmental health so that we could better integrate the evidence available and make timely decisions to protect the health of particularly vulnerable populations like pregnant women and children,” Sutton noted.

The resulting framework, The Navigation Guide, was published in 2011 by an impressive network of colleagues led by the UCSF’s Center’s Director, Tracey Woodruff, Ph.D. Now in its sixth proof of concept, The Navigation Guide, along with other critical statements from medical professional societies legitimizing the link between environmental exposures and reproductive health outcomes have resulted in a tremendous sea-change in the awareness of and attitude towards environmental exposures.

“Now more than ever, we’re seeing interest, ownership, and dedication to action,” Sutton noted. “And this is something that is really exciting for the future of environmental health research and policy.”

Building partnerships for the future

Moving forward the Center will continue to leverage and expand its collaborative network. “We’re a small organization, so everything we are able to carry out is through collaborations and partnerships,” Sutton noted. “For our work to continue to be successful we will build on existing relationships and establish new partnerships with government agencies, health professional societies, non-governmental organizations, and communities, to accomplish our shared goals. We have an opportunity to continue making strides and having a profound impact not only on children’s health, but on the health of families and generations to come.”

Additional Information on the link between environmental exposures and reproductive health

  • American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists and American Society of Reproductive Medicine joint opinion statement.
  • FIGO animated video – brief introduction contaminant 

James Fredrick – Improving Workplace Health and Safety for Immigrant Day Laborers

James Fredrick Speaking
James Fredrick (Photo courtesy of James Fredrick)

September 19, 2016

For more than 25 years, James Frederick has dedicated his career to improving health and safety at workplaces across the country. Since 1994, he has worked for the United Steelworkers (USW) Health, Safety, and Environment Department, one of the largest union-based health and safety departments in the world.

Today, Fredrick is the assistant director of the department, which provides a variety of workplace health and safety services, such as assisting local USW unions with health and safety contract provisions and providing occupational health, safety, and environmental training for union members and employers.

"We experience a work-related fatality to a member every 12 days," Fredrick said. "Every single one of those is a complete failure of everything we try to do in health and safety and also a symptom of complete failure of the health and safety management system at that workplace. We have a huge obligation to our members to do everything we can to give them tools to recognize and make recommendations to control the hazards that are causing fatalities in those workplaces."

Beyond the members

In addition to providing a host of programs and services to its members, USW also reaches out beyond its membership to offer various types of health and safety training where it is needed most. For example, immediately after Superstorm Sandy, USW responded to the NIEHS call for disaster trainers by sending some of their members who were certified Special Emergency Response Trainers to New York and New Jersey. Even before cleanup efforts were very organized, these trainers were on-site to provide essential information on appropriate personal protective equipment and safe, effective mold remediation.

During this response, USW spoke with leaders of several worker centers about the health and safety needs of their constituents. Worker centers are non-profit community-based organizations that organize and provide support to low-wage workers, many times targeting immigrant workers and day laborers. The worker centers expressed a key need to provide the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) 10-hour outreach training class to its constituents in Spanish. This class was required for many of these immigrant day laborers to get better jobs in the post-Sandy cleanup efforts, but most of these workers did not have the resources to pay for the class.

With NIEHS funding through the Worker Training Program (WTP), the USW provided the "train the trainer" class to a cadre of Spanish-speaking workers, which certified them to then teach the OSHA class to others. The Union also provided resources that helped the worker centers present the 10-hour OSHA class to their constituents. These efforts led to hundreds of immigrant workers taking the OSHA class during the Sandy cleanup, and thousands of workers have been reached since then.

"Providing this OSHA training gave many workers access to jobs that required the class while also giving them a baseline understanding of OHSA requirements and workplace hazards that they may experience," Fredrick said. "Our hope is that by allowing more people to take this training we are raising the level of understanding so that these workers can help to make improvements in their workplaces by giving them a more significant voice at work, not just for themselves, but for all of their coworkers and the workers that come to those workplaces after them."

Expanding across the country

The work that began in New York and New Jersey during Superstorm Sandy has now expanded across the United States thanks to a five-year WTP Cooperative Agreement awarded to the Steelworkers Charitable and Educational Organization's Tony Mazzocchi Center (TMC).

Fredrick is the principal investigator for this cooperative agreement, which includes Make the Road New York, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), The Communication Workers of America, and the Labor Institute as partners. NDLON is an umbrella organization that works with several worker centers across the country. The Labor Institute coordinates logistics such as finding Spanish-speaking teachers for the OHSA classes.

"The day laborers served by worker centers are a truly underserved population in terms of health and safety, and one that has grown steadily in this country for a number of years, and will continue to grow," explained Fredrick. "We have seen workplaces where there is very little or even no health and safety structure in place. It has been incredibly rewarding, both professionally and on an interpersonal level, to see the benefits from training this group."

Fredrick says that the USW is conducting better evaluation for all its programs to help understand the effects of health and safety training in the participants' workplaces. He is particularly eager to more clearly understand how the training is affecting the immigrant workers and says that the evaluation opportunity afforded through this NIEHS cooperative agreement is invaluable.

"I'm truly proud to be part of a team of people that includes the staff that works for the union itself, the group that works for the Tony Mazzocchi Center, and all the local union members who work for us as trainers on a part-time basis," Fredrick said. "They are the ones making all of this work happen, and together I know that what we do improves the lives of our members and those reached through our partner organizations."

Guy Williams – Finding collaborative environmental justice solutions for the people of Detroit

August 5, 2016

Guy Williams
Guy Williams (Photo courtesy of Guy Williams)

Since the early days of the environmental justice movement, Guy Williams has worked to reduce environmental health disparities by seeking far-reaching solutions and fostering long-term relationships among local community members, academic researchers, business owners, and decision makers.

Twenty years ago, Williams helped to found Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice (DWEJ), a community organization that has fostered clean, healthy, and safe communities through innovative policy, education, and workforce initiatives. Today he leads the organization as president and CEO.

Williams first became aware of environmental justice issues while working at the Environmental Defense Fund. In 1990, several environmental justice leaders signed a letter accusing 10 of the largest and most influential environmental groups of racism in terms of their policy development, hiring, and the composition of their boards. The letter challenged these groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund, to address environmental issues experienced by people of color and the poor.

After looking into the allegations against his employer, Williams came to believe that they were true. “Rather than leaving the Environmental Defense Fund, I decided that I should stay and work to become part of the solution,” he says. “That decision set the course for everything I’ve done over the last 25 years. It put me on a path to working on the front lines of engaging businesses that would typically be called the polluters and learning more about the manufacturing processes and how those could be improved to make them more environmentally safe.”

After working to promote change at the Environmental Defense Fund for four years, he took a position with the National Wildlife Federation office in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Williams then connected with a group of people in Detroit who were seeking to elevate the understanding of environmental justice issues facing the area. They would go on to form DWEJ in 1995.

Improving Detroit’s air quality

“In my early environmental work, I worked with colleagues who tried to find large-scale innovative solutions that were broad and sweeping for an entire industry,” Williams said. “Because of this experience, I tend to look for large-scale solutions for problems such as those in Detroit, where one of our main issues is the lack of air quality.”

Today, DWEJ is helping address the air quality problem by partnering with Amy Schulz, Ph.D., from the University of Michigan to develop an evidence-based Clean Air Action Plan that is designed to drive change from the local level upwards. This project, called Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments (CA-PHE), is funded by the NIEHS Research to Action Program.

CA-PHE (pronounced “café”) draws on the more than 20-year-old relationship between DWEJ, the University of Michigan School of Public Health, and other community partners. The groups have collaborated on a variety of community-based participatory research projects aimed at improving environmental health. One of DWEJ’s primary roles in these projects is helping to engage the public in the research on a regular basis and in a substantive manner.

For CA-PHE, DWEJ plans to hold small-group meetings with key advocates or activists who have expressed interest in improving Detroit’s air quality. These meetings will offer the opportunity to share research findings with attendees and receive input on how the findings could best be applied while taking into account real-life challenges faced by people in Detroit. DWEJ is also working to engage various coalitions, networks of practitioners, and decision makers in the development of the Clean Air Action Plan.

“Our rich history, not only our own organizational history, but also our history of teaming with the other partners, provides confidence that once the research is finalized, we’ll be very successful at dissemination,” Williams said.

Williams is also a Chair of the Community Advisory Board for the Community Outreach and Engagement Core of the Center for Urban Responses to Environmental Stressors (CURES) at Wayne State University in Detroit. CURES is funded by the NIEHS and focuses on understanding how exposures to stressors prevalent in the urban industrialized environment impact human health. Williams has played an instrumental role in shaping processes and strategies for CURES and has helped strengthen the Center’s outreach programming and communications since its inception in 2013.

Award-winning work

DWEJ has been involved in numerous important initiatives that are improving lives for people in Detroit and raising awareness of environmental justice issues. For example, the organization collaborated with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 5 and researchers from Wayne State University to raise awareness of the potential dangers of demolishing thousands of homes in the city without the proper safeguards for mitigating the spread of lead dust. This work led to significant changes in contracting and demolishing requirements, which were recognized with an EPA award to the city of Detroit.

In 2014, the Detroit Free Press recognized Williams’ work in Detroit by naming him a Michigan Green Leader. In 2016, Williams received the Bucknell University Alumni Association Service To Humanity Award, which honors selfless and caring work and deeds that benefit society and humankind. He was also featured in a Bucknell Magazine article.

“I’m honored to be considered one of the key opinion leaders on the environment and feel like I’ve worked hard to be a credible source of information that helps make positive change possible,” said Williams. “I’ve hopefully inspired a lot of creative solutions in my career so far, yet we have much more to do. There are still many people suffering needlessly from how we deal with our pollution and the toxic chemicals manufactured and invented here in Detroit.”

Jada Brooks, Ph.D. – Addressing Health Disparities Among American Indians

July 6, 2016

Jada Brooks, Ph.D.

Jada Brooks, Ph.D.
(Photo courtesy of Jada Brooks)

American Indian and Alaska Native children are 30 percent more likely to have asthma than non-Hispanic white children, but scientists don’t fully understand why. Jada Brooks, Ph.D., is working to understand the drivers of this disparity by studying how environmental pollutants interact with mental health and social factors to increase asthma risk in American Indians living in North Carolina. Her work could lead to new interventions that help decrease asthma risk and improve management of the disease in American Indian children.

In addition to being more likely to develop asthma, American Indian children experience higher levels of disability or death from the disease. “Because asthma is a treatable and manageable condition, these racial disparities should not exist,” said Brooks, assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Nursing in Chapel Hill.

Brooks first became interested in studying asthma when a physician in Lumberton, North Carolina approached her. The Lumberton area is home to the Lumbee Tribe, the largest American Indian population in North Carolina. “At the time, I was completing my doctoral degree and was trying to figure out what I wanted to study,” Brooks said. “We had a conversation about some of the problems in the community, and the asthma issue piqued my interest.”

Factors tied to asthma control

“My postdoctoral research at UNC Chapel Hill was designed to address the gap in understanding how certain risk factors such as environmental tobacco smoke, maternal depressive symptoms, and family management styles are related to asthma control in North Carolina’s American Indians,” Brooks said.

Asthma is a major health concern among Lumbee children. Brooks studied how symptoms of depression affected the capacity of mothers to manage asthma in their children. With guidance from her mentor, Linda S. Beeber, Ph.D., Brooks collected and analyzed data on family management of childhood asthma in over 60 American Indian families in North Carolina. Most of the families were part of the Lumbee tribe.

Brooks’ research showed that American Indian children living in households without environmental tobacco smoke showed better asthma control. Children whose mothers viewed asthma as a manageable condition also saw better control. Brooks also found that mothers who experienced symptoms related to depression perceived an increased effort needed to manage their child’s asthma.

Engaging the Lumbee community

Brooks, who is a Lumbee Indian, says that conducting research in a community setting requires tremendous effort. She must engage communities in the research and work to continually strengthen relationships necessary for partnership. “Being Lumbee helps me to understand and interpret the sociocultural influences of health disparities among the Lumbee,” she said. “It also gives me credibility, allows me to more easily identify with my study participants, and provides opportunities to develop personal and professional relationships that contribute to my research success.”

Brooks says that frequent interaction and authenticity have been required to engage the Lumbee community in her research. An important part of her success has been the fact that she lives in the community where she conducts her research. This increases her visibility and provides opportunities to build and maintain relationships with key stakeholders and gatekeepers in the community. She also seeks input from community partnership committees, which include community members from various backgrounds and are created for a specific research project.

Despite the advantages, Brooks says that she must also be aware that being Lumbee can bring biases and limitations to her research. She is careful to be aware of these so that she can minimize their influence on her work.

Reducing effects of environmental pollutants

Brooks is now seeking funding to expand her research by exploring inflammation as a potential biological pathway linking environmental pollutant exposure and psychosocial factors to cardiovascular disease in American Indian women. This research could eventually inform behavioral and disease prevention interventions aimed at reducing the health effects of environmental pollutants on vulnerable populations.

Brooks is passionate about her research and strongly committed to reducing health disparities among American Indians. “I want to provide answers to complex questions regarding the impact of environmental pollutants and psychosocial factors in specific disease conditions,” Brooks said. “The findings can be used to inform the design of low-cost psychosocial interventions to reduce American Indian’s propensity for inflammatory-based illnesses and could potentially be translated for other racial/ethnic populations.”

Nancy Schoenberg, Ph.D. – Working with Appalachian Communities to Address Health Disparities

June 24, 2016

Appalachian Kentucky Community Advisory Board
The photo above features the Appalachian Kentucky Community Advisory Board and research team. Nancy Schoenberg, Ph.D., is on the far right. (From left to right: Carol Ison, Jennifer Honeycutt, Kathryn Cardarelli, Nell Fields, Beverly May, Sharman Chapman-Crane, Katie Dollarhide, and Nancy Schoenberg)

Nancy Schoenberg, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Kentucky, has long been interested in social justice and making a positive difference. As a development economics major in college, she began considering the impacts of wealth disparities and the importance of addressing inequalities. This interest led her to become a medical anthropologist, focusing her work on addressing health disparities in Appalachia related to chronic diseases, including respiratory disease, nutritional disorders, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

Appalachia (specifically, eastern Kentucky) is a region that faces numerous socioeconomic challenges that impact healthcare access, screening behavior, and environmental risks. “In Appalachia, where I work, people have high rates of just about everything – from diabetes to hypertension to substance abuse to respiratory disease – so there are ample health problems to study,” says Schoenberg.

As a medical anthropologist, Schoenberg says she always seeks to understand the larger social context related to disease conditions. As she explains, “To me, it doesn’t matter what condition it is, whether it’s asthma, heart disease, or cancer, because most of these illnesses have their roots in the same fundamental causes – that’s my area of interest.”

Using Community-Based Participatory Research to Address Respiratory Diseases

Appalachian Kentucky community interviewers
The photo above features the Appalachian Kentucky community interviewers. (From left to right: Betty Keith, Penny Lee, Darlene Warf, Denise Baird, and Libby Honeycutt)

Currently, Schoenberg and Steven Browning, Ph.D., an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Kentucky, are investigating Appalachia’s alarmingly high rates of respiratory disease. During a five-year project titled “Community-Engaged Research and Action to Reduce Respiratory Disease in Appalachia,” researchers work with Kentucky’s Appalachian communities to develop strategies for improving respiratory and environmental public health.

Residents of Kentucky’s central Appalachian counties experience some of the highest rates of serious respiratory illness and disease in the nation. Adults are 50 percent more likely to develop asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), compared to the overall U.S. population. A variety of factors may play a role, including environmental degradation, high rates of smoking and obesity, as well as poor housing quality and ventilation issues. To tackle this problem, the team is using a community-based participatory research (CBPR) approach.

Appalachian Kentucky community engagement specialist Nell Fields
The photo above features Appalachian Kentucky community engagement specialist Nell Fields.

During the first phase of this project, Schoenberg and Browning’s team will collect data by going door-to-door in Appalachian Kentucky. Much of this data will be collected by local interviewers. Two essential partners are Project Manager Beverly May and Community Engagement Specialist Nell Fields, who are both lifelong Appalachian residents. By asking targeted questions, they seek to identify communities with a high prevalence of respiratory disease and to understand better the contributing risk factors.

During the second phase, they plan to use their findings to inform culturally appropriate actions. If they find that housing quality and poor ventilation are the main risk factors, they will implement an evidence-based, culturally suitable housing program. If they find smoking is the main contributor, they will implement a culturally appropriate smoking cessation program.

Schoenberg describes this study as integrating community engagement from start to finish. “Community members will be doing the assessment, they will learn to operate some of the equipment, and they are increasing their capacity to be citizen scientists – which is really exciting. It’s really a beautiful partnership between the community and academics,” she said.

Moving forward, Schoenberg says her hope is that community members will continue to increase their scientific literacy and capacity to deal with local health issues. “Our research team wants to encourage communities to take up their own mantle, advancing environmental health issues,” says Schoenberg. “We really want to make our role in communities, as researchers, obsolete.”

Highlighted Publications

Kelly KM, Schoenberg N, Wilson TD, Atkins E, Dickinson S, Paskett E. 2015. Cervical cancer worry and screening among Appalachian women. J Prim Prev 36(2):79-92. [Abstract Kelly KM, Schoenberg N, Wilson TD, Atkins E, Dickinson S, Paskett E. 2015. Cervical cancer worry and screening among Appalachian women. J Prim Prev 36(2):79-92.]

Schoenberg NE, Bundy HE, Baeker Bispo JA, Studts CR, Shelton BJ, Fields N. 2015. A rural Appalachian faith-placed smoking cessation intervention. J Relig Health 54(2):598-611. [Abstract Schoenberg NE, Bundy HE, Baeker Bispo JA, Studts CR, Shelton BJ, Fields N. 2015. A rural Appalachian faith-placed smoking cessation intervention. J Relig Health 54(2):598-611.]

Schoenberg N, Snell-Rood C, Swanson M, Dollarhide K, Wright S. 2014. Addressing health inequities in Appalachian Kentucky through community-engaged interventions: reflections after 10 years of applied research. Pract Anthropol 36(4):31-36. [Abstract Schoenberg N, Snell-Rood C, Swanson M, Dollarhide K, Wright S. 2014. Addressing health inequities in Appalachian Kentucky through community-engaged interventions: reflections after 10 years of applied research. Pract Anthropol 36(4):31-36.]

Elizabeth Yeampierre – Facilitating Change for Environmental Justice through Community Empowerment and Advocacy

May 5, 2016

Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE, is passionate about community advocacy, and her personal experiences have played a major role in guiding her career path. Born and raised in an environmental justice community in New York City, Yeampierre witnessed first-hand the health disparities present in her own life and the lives of family members. As a former civil rights attorney, she is an expert at addressing economic and social justice issues. “Although I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, I didn’t want to use my education to make money – I wanted to make change,” Yeampierre stated. “This had a lot to do with how I was raised to appreciate the values of community and to understand the historical sacrifices made by my African and Indigenous ancestors, who were descendants of colonization and slavery.”

UPROSE is a nationally recognized organization that promotes the sustainability of Sunset Park – an ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood in Brooklyn – by empowering younger generations, enhancing environmental amenities, and addressing social inequities. Although it was incorporated as a grassroots organization for Brooklyn’s Latino community in 1966, major changes took place when Yeampierre joined in 1996 – her leadership served as a catalyst to shift the organization’s mission toward advocacy and developing indigenous leadership through activism.

Yeampierre poses with UPROSE youth
Yeampierre (fifth from right, second row) poses with UPROSE youth for a fun photograph.

Getting Started: Youth Empowerment and Advocacy for Environmental Justice

Shortly after taking on the role of executive director in 1996, Yeampierre led an assessment to determine what UPROSE could do to complement what other organizations were already doing in the community. “We wanted to think strategically about how to best use our resources and skills to make the community stronger,” she said.

Observations from the assessment led to the establishment of a new model of youth development through organizing. This model sought to empower youth by offering them resources and skills and encouraging them to be proactive about their education. UPROSE became filled with young people of different ages and backgrounds who were eager to serve as leaders and advocates for their community. “In the process of youth transforming the community, they were transforming, as well,” Yeampierre mentioned.

Yeampierre at NY Renews
Yeampierre (left) participates during the kickoff event for a statewide campaign, NY Renews, to make New York State 100% renewable.

UPROSE’s mission flourished as Yeampierre began working with youth to fight against the disproportionate environmental burdens in the Sunset Park community. One of their first projects involved organizing a town hall meeting on lead paint, where different experts – teachers, doctors, and lawyers – were invited to help parents understand their rights and to address the effects of lead paint on their children’s health. As a result of the meeting, city council members were encouraged to pass legislation that would require removal of lead paint from homes. Other early projects included campaigns to address air quality issues in Sunset Park. Residents are disproportionately impacted by health issues, such as asthma, stemming from traffic-related air pollution from the Gowanus Expressway, a local highway that sees more than 200,000 cars and 25,000 trucks per day. Yeampierre worked with youth advocates to initiate a transportation campaign to help the community prepare a draft environmental impact statement to respond to the state’s expansion plans for the expressway. “We provided air monitors to the young people so that they could educate each other and their community about the air pollutants and health disparities near the expressway corridor,” Yeampierre stated. This campaign marked the first time in which community members were actively involved in responding to state plans for expansion of a local highway.

Working to Address Needs for Climate Justice and Adaptation

People's Climate March
Yeampierre speaks during the People’s Climate March in New York City in September 2014.

In recent years, climate justice has become a growing concern in major urban areas like Brooklyn. Located near New York City’s largest industrial waterfront, the Sunset Park community is highly vulnerable to storm surges during extreme weather events. These events present a risk of exposure to improperly stored chemicals from shipping and manufacturing industries along the waterfront, as well as hazardous contaminants that may reside in the Sunset Park Brownfields site. “There is clearly an intersection between racial justice and climate change,” Yeampierre stated. “For people of color, a combination of factors such as limited healthcare access, disease susceptibility, and experiences of historical trauma makes them very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.”

Recognizing these risks, Yeampierre and others at UPROSE began working to address climate justice needs for the Sunset Park community. For example, in 2006, UPROSE received one of the first Brownfields grants funded in the state of New York to look at how planning could address climate change. Following Superstorm Sandy and during recovery efforts, Yeampierre and others held a meeting to determine which actions would best suit the needs of the community. Community members shared and identified affordable strategies to make their homes and neighborhood more sustainable in the wake of climate change events. This included ideas to organize and perform block-by-block assessments to identify climate vulnerabilities within residences. In response, UPROSE launched the Sunset Park Climate Justice and Community Resiliency Center, which aims to respond effectively to future severe weather events by coordinating resources and engaging residents and local businesses in adaptation plans.

“To define the climate justice movement, we have stopped using the word ‘resilience’ and instead use ‘resistance’. Resilience communicates that we are helping communities bounce back – to environmental racism, discrimination, and neglect – however, that is not the end result that we desire. We want to help communities become more resistant and bounce forward during adaptation, as well as rebuild to a better position than where they started.”

Yeampierre and others continue to be involved with numerous local climate justice campaigns and efforts, including the Peoples' Climate March, which attracted more than 400,000 participants in New York City in September 2014. During the event, marches were happening in solidarity in countries all over the world to raise awareness on the issues of climate change.

Communities as Leaders on Climate Justice Issues

Having environmental justice communities lead and become engaged in determining their future is the only way to prevent disasters from completely displacing them. – Elizabeth Yeampierre

From her experience, Yeampierre noted that the top-down approach to solving local climate justice issues is dated and will no longer work. “I am able to better understand my role by stepping back, so that the communities can step up,” she stated. “Therefore, the most effective model is one that allows communities to step up, lead, and speak for themselves. This requires stakeholders to abide by different principles, to be humble, and to see communities as partners, rather than passive recipients of good intentions.”

Overall, climate justice requires a leaderful community and not one person speaking for everyone. Recognizing that everyone’s expertise is critical and creating interdisciplinary partnerships is extremely important to address these issues.

Additional Information

Read more in Yeampierre’s article in The Guardian: Hurricane Katrina proved that if black lives matter, so must climate justice.

Although she was unable to attend, Yeampierre was featured as one of Vogue’s 13 women climate warriors to address global warming for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and COP21 negotiations held in Paris in December 2015.

Susan Schantz, Ph.D. – Blending Approaches to Explore How Environmental Exposures Affect the Brain

April 20, 2016

Schantz, Susan, Ph.D.

In addition to directing the University of Illinois Children’s Center, Schantz also directs the NIEHS Training Program in Endocrine, Reproductive, and Developmental Toxicology (T32) at the University and is the associate director of the NIH-funded Botanical Estrogen Research Center.
(Photo courtesy of Susan Schantz)

Susan Schantz, Ph.D., enjoys integrating knowledge, disciplines, people, and various research approaches to answer big-picture questions about how environmental exposures can affect the brain and nervous system.

"I really like to bring together a group of people to address a big problem and see if we can figure out a good way to integrate people who have different knowledge and approaches that complement each other," said Schantz, a professor of comparative biosciences at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Combining approaches to find answers

Since very early in her career, Schantz has combined studies in both animals and people to understand better the effects of chemical exposures. “If you see the same pattern of effects in an animal model as you see in humans, that can increase your certainty that the effects are really related to the exposures that you’re studying,” she explains.

Schantz brings her expertise in designing complementary human and animal studies to the Children’s Environmental Health Research Center at Illinois, which she directs. The Children’s Center, which is funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and NIEHS, is examining the effects of exposure to bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, and other chemicals found in plastics and personal care products on neurological and reproductive development and function.

"We designed the Children’s Center to focus on a group of children that we’re following from before birth while including studies in animals that closely parallel the human studies," Schantz said. "We hope that this unique approach will more quickly bring us forward toward our goal of understanding the underlying neurodevelopmental changes or mechanisms involved in environmental exposure effects that we see in humans."

Schantz also co-leads, with Dr. Susan Korrick, the Center’s project assessing the effects of prenatal exposure to bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates by following children from before birth. One key goal is to develop new procedures for measuring cognitive development that can be used with 1- to 5-week-old infants. The researchers are partnering with developmental psychologists who study infant cognition to see whether approaches from this field could be used to assess whether prenatal chemical exposures are affecting very early neurodevelopment. Such tests might eliminate the need to follow children until they are 5 or 6 years old to know whether a chemical has negative effects on brain development.

"I hope that by identifying approaches to identify neurodevelopmental problems earlier, as we become aware of new environmental risks, we might be able to determine much earlier if they will lead to a long-term risk for neurodevelopmental problems," Schantz said. "On an individual basis, the tests might also be useful for very early identification of neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. Earlier detection could allow earlier interventions, which might then lead to better outcomes."

Reaching community members

Community outreach is an important part of the Children’ Center. "We decided early on that since we’re focusing on infancy and early childhood, we wanted to focus on outreach to childcare providers," said Schantz.

A survey conducted by the Center’s Community Outreach and Translation Core (COTC), which is led by Barbara Fiese, Ph.D., revealed that although childcare providers across Illinois knew very little about environmental chemicals and how children might be exposed to these chemicals in the daycare setting, they were very interested in gaining more information and knowledge in this area. In response to this need, the COTC organized a speaker and workshops for childcare providers attending a statewide meeting.

Community members also play an important role in Schantz’s research. Through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), a national program designed to keep people over 50 active, retired residents living in the area come to work in her lab. Over the years, this has included retirees from a number of professions, such as pediatrics, teaching, and nursing. The former teachers, for example, were helpful in explaining Schantz’s research to the mothers in the study and in helping to recruit new participants. The retirees also provide mentorship to undergraduates working in the lab, many of whom are interested in healthcare professions.

"The retirees come and work with us because they hear about our research and think it is really important," Schantz said. "They feel committed to children’s health and bring with them a lifetime of experience."

Sharon and David Gauthe – Addressing Environmental Justice Issues in Gulf Coast Communities

March 14, 2016

When most people think of environmental justice communities, they envision lower-income neighborhoods and towns that suffer disproportionately from the negative effects of pollution and other environmental problems. For more than a decade, Sharon and David Gauthe have been promoting a concept of regional environmental justice communities. Through their work for Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing (BISCO), Sharon and David have seen firsthand the profound and intertwined effects of poverty and environmental crises on the people of the Gulf Coast, where incomes tend to be lower — and poverty rates higher — than the country as a whole.

In 2000, after a long career in social services, Sharon started working for BISCO, a faith-based organization working to advance social and environmental justice in southeast Louisiana. She is now the organization’s executive director. David had volunteered for BISCO since the mid-90s and was hired as a senior organizer in 2008.

Dinner and discussion in Lafourche Parish

EPA honored BISCO with a Gulf Guardian Award in 2015. Pictured at the awards ceremony are BISCO Senior Organizer David Gauthe, EPA Region 6 Regional Administrator Ron Curry, BISCO Executive Director Sharon Gauthe, and EPA Region 6 Office of External Affairs Director David Gray.
(Photo courtesy of Sharon Gauthe)

Bringing attention to Gulf Coast needs

“Our interest in environmental justice peaked after Hurricane Katrina,” Sharon says. “People everywhere heard about New Orleans and reacted, but recognition of issues for people living on the coast was almost nonexistent. Ever since, David and I have worked hard to address the environmental concerns facing our community, and our story was told as the BISCO story.”

Through informal education and advocacy, BISCO builds awareness and knowledge of the role that environmental injustice plays in the negative environmental impacts faced by Gulf Coast communities. The organization helps build community capacity for addressing the systemic causes of these injustices and for building strong, just, and healthy communities for the future.

In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognized the hard work of Sharon, David, and the BISCO staff with a First Place Gulf Guardian Award in the Environmental Justice and Cultural Diversity Category. “All the BISCO staff works together closely, and so the honor of being named a Gulf Guardian goes to us all,” Sharon says. “The award also means a lot to David and me because of the 16 years we have spent listening to the people of southeast Louisiana and advocating for their needs. We are proud to have fought this battle and truly believe we have made a difference.”

Helping communities respond to crises

David Gauthe, Curry, Sharon Gauthe, Gray

BISCO works to build awareness and knowledge about environmental justice in Gulf Coast communities through events such as this dinner and discussion of health services in Lafourche Parish.
(Photo courtesy of Sharon Gauthe)

In 2010, just five years after the devastation of Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill brought the Gulf Coast yet another setback. BISCO responded immediately by organizing 14 community meetings that gave more than 1,500 residents a chance to voice their concerns about the spill. Later, the organization partnered with scientists from Tulane University and the University of  Texas Medical Branch at Galveston who studied the long-term human health effects of the oil spill as part of the NIEHS-funded Deepwater Horizon Research Consortia.

Sharon says that BISCO’s good standing in the community as a faith-based, nonprofit organization made it very easy to work with community members on Consortia projects. Through this academic-community partnership, the scientists learned the importance of organizations like BISCO in helping community members trust scientists conducting research in their communities. 

“We worked directly with the university researchers to review their maps, materials, and documents and to assist them in making information easily understood and relevant to our community members,” she says. “We also connected the researchers to our local parish government leaders, as well as local and regional health departments, so that findings from the studies could be shared with them and others in our community.”

Today, coastal communities in Louisiana are still dealing with lingering effects from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill while also facing a massive coastal erosion problem that, coupled with sea-level rise, is threatening the very survival of large swaths of coastline. Thanks to BISCO’s campaign to increase community involvement in the 2012 Louisiana Master Plan, more wetland development was added to the plan and a new community focus group was formed, with BISCO holding a seat. Through trainings and monthly meetings, BISCO continues to bring awareness to issues associated with coastal land loss.

Under Sharon and David’s leadership, BISCO’s many advocacy programs have increased awareness of the significance of environmental justice for Gulf Coast communities. This awareness helped build greater political support for increasing funding for projects aimed at addressing the systemic causes of injustices experienced by people of the Gulf Coast.

“Today, the notion that an entire region can be labeled an environmental justice community has gained general acceptance and is playing an important role in the planning and funding for community rebuilding across the coast,” Sharon says. “This is the type of system change that can make a difference for thousands of coastal residents, and we are very proud to have been a primary actor in this change.”

Steve Wing and Gary Grant – Community-driven Research for Environmental Justice

January 19, 2016

For 20 years, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) professor Steve Wing, Ph.D., and community leader Gary Grant, have worked together to raise awareness of unjust environmental health conditions and improve public health in eastern North Carolina. Their partnership has greatly advanced what we know about how living near industrial hog operations can affect human health and the environmental justice concerns for communities living near these factory farms.

As the Executive Director of the Concerned Citizens of Tillery (CCT), a community-based organization in Tillery, North Carolina, Grant works to improve the social, economic, and educational welfare of citizens in this rural, predominately African American region of eastern North Carolina. CCT became involved in environmental issues in the early 1990s when Tillery was chosen as the location for a number of new industrial hog operations. 

Wing, a professor of epidemiology at UNC, started attending CCT meetings in 1995 to learn about potential public health concerns from people who live near industrial hog operations. There, he met Grant and learned about the disproportionate environmental exposures faced by low-income communities of color in the region. A 10-county area of eastern North Carolina has the highest density of hogs in the United States. The pigs in industrial hog operations are raised inside large barns that vent air pollutants into local communities. The animals’ feces and urine are flushed into open-air cesspools and the liquid waste is sprayed onto fields where it can drift into nearby communities.

“I have always been interested in social justice as a fundamental driver of public health so I was tremendously excited to meet Gary because he leads an organization that fights for justice,” Wing said. “I was moved when I met the people of Tillery who both experience unjust environmental conditions and were organizing to do something about it.”

Wing and Grant talk with Nan Freeland

Wing (center) and Grant (right) in 2005 talk with Nan Freeland, co-founder (with Grant) of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network.
(Photo courtesy of Gary Grant)

Asking the right questions

When Wing started investigating hog production issues in North Carolina, very little research was being done on potential environmental health impacts to surrounding communities. Traditional methods of studying health impacts that rely on medical records were not an option because of the widespread lack of access to medical services. Community members distrusted researchers because of potential ties to industry and government and a history of failure to address community concerns.

“I spent a lot of time in Tillery learning what I could from the people exposed to these problems.  We worked together to figure out what research questions to ask,” said Wing. “Without a partnership with CCT and other community-based organizations, there would have been no way for researchers to know where to go to make measurements or how to engage people in collaborative research. In the end we were able to recruit people who felt comfortable participating in research because we were with an organization they trusted. “

“We worked collaboratively to design the research and the research questions. We never had a questionnaire that was not reviewed by the community first to make sure people were comfortable with the questions,” Grant said. “The research also had to be brought back to the community in a way that the community can understand it and use the information to improve their lives.”

Wing and Grant

At the 2015 North Carolina Environmental Justice Summit, participants organized a celebration of Wing’s work to reflect on his contribution to environmental justice. Grant (left) discussed his work with Wing (right). “Steve has helped bring research to communities so they could defend themselves,” said Grant.
(Photo courtesy of Kenda Freeman)

Documenting health problems near hog farms

Over the years, Wing and his research team, including Grant and other community members, have published a number of studies that raise concerns about the effects of industrial hog operations in North Carolina. They have also documented symptoms of disease among residents near the hog operations, such as headaches, runny noses, sore throats, and diarrhea.

The research team documented increases in potentially harmful air pollutants, such as hydrogen sulfide, near industrial hog operations as well as elevations in blood pressure that occur during times when residents are exposed to air pollutants. They also found that children attending schools where school staff reported livestock odors inside school buildings had a higher prevalence of asthma symptoms than children attending schools where staff reported no livestock odor. Another study shows that hog odor impacts neighbors’ daily activities and quality of life.

Using findings to organize for social justice

In addition to the myriad of health effects associated with hog operations, the collaborative work also revealed that the number of hog operations in North Carolina greatest in areas with both high poverty and high percentage of non-whites

Citing evidence that industrial hog operations were re-permitted despite evidence of disproportionate impact to minority communities, CCT partnered with the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, and the Waterkeeper Alliance in 2014 to file a legal complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) against the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, state agencies that receive federal funds cannot act in a racially discriminatory way. The Title VI complaint was accepted by the EPA for investigation earlier this year.  

The partners have also worked with communities to document the human health impacts of landfills, lack of access to public sewers, and spreading of sewage sludge, or the solids leftover from wastewater treatment, on farmland.  “The research projects in the community have not only provided evidence relevant to environmental justice issues, but also intend to create change by involving communities that are most directly exposed,” Wing said. Their work is leading to positive policy changes that may help protect rural communities of color.

NIEHS supported the CCT-UNC collaboration from 1996 – 2012.  

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