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Your Environment. Your Health.

2022 Grantee Highlights

Kathleen Gray, Ph.D. – Improving Environmental Risk Communication Through Interdisciplinary Collaborations

May 6, 2022

Kathleen Gray Ph.D.
“My work sets me up to be a resource to scientists and communities having difficult conversations about personal, real-world impacts,” says Gray, Director of the Center for Public Engagement with Science and a professor in the UNC Institute for the Environment.
(Photo courtesy of Kathleen Gray)

Kathleen Gray, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC) has long held a passion for increasing understanding of environmental exposures in communities affected by contamination.

After completing her undergraduate degree, she worked with community-based organizations in southern Louisiana that were responding to contamination from nearby chemical and petroleum industries. Gray was part of a team that collected and analyzed water and soil to understand the extent of exposure. While working alongside community leaders to share results in public meetings, Gray discovered a passion for communicating about environmental health risk and facilitating dialogue on how to respond.

“My work in Louisiana was a springboard into risk communication and stakeholder engagement,” says Gray. “Now, after decades of working in North Carolina communities, and with academic training in science education, I find myself being called on to advise environmental science colleagues about how to communicate the implications of their research findings to community members.”

Team Player

Reflecting on her career, Gray is most proud of the team she works with in the Center for Public Engagement with Science.

The team began with three people, including Frances Lynn, Dr.PH., who founded the Environmental Resource Program (the CPES precursor) in 1985. Lynn was a leader in community-engaged research and a mentor to Gray. The team has since grown to eight permanent staff and many temporary and student positions.

“It’s not about the numbers, it’s about supporting people who have a real impact in communities. I feel lucky to work with this amazing team of educators and researchers in North Carolina, and throughout the national SRP network as well” says Gray.

Today, Gray leads the Community Engagement Cores at the NIEHS-funded Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center and Center for Environmental Health and Susceptibility (CEHS) at UNC, where she continues innovating environmental health risk communication for diverse communities.

“The UNC SRP brings biomedical, environmental, and social scientists together to conduct research that addresses complex environmental challenges related to toxic metals in drinking water and fish, while the CEHS focuses on asthma, lead and healthy homes, and environmental cancers,” she explains. “These are important issues for our communities in North Carolina.”

Together these teams develop outreach and educational materials to help communities better understand how the environment can affect their health. Community resources include mapping toolsinfographics, and educational activities.

“Scientists may not have experienced living in a community where their health is threatened by the environment, so empathy is very important,” Gray says. “Engaging communities and key stakeholders throughout the research process ensures our research is relevant while improving scientific understanding and communications about these difficult issues.”

Broadening Understanding of Environmental Concerns for Maternal and Child Health

One of the groups Gray works with is the fishing community in North Carolina. Lakes in the area may contain contaminants that end up in the fish people eat, which can be especially concerning for women of childbearing age and children because they can cross the placenta and contaminate breast milk which can affect brain and other development.

fishing rod on side of boat with a coastline of trees and a sunrise
Some lakes in North Carolina are contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, a group of chemicals associated with skin conditions, diabetes, cancer, neurological toxicity, and other health effects, and methylmercury.

In one study, Gray and colleagues assessed how well fish consumption advisory signs alerted anglers to these contaminants in the Badin Lake area using focus groups with English- and Spanish-speaking anglers.

“We found that while men were not the most at risk, they were sharing fish with the most at-risk groups,” Gray explains. “If we had not asked them about both their perceptions and their habits, we would have missed that they were giving fish to women and children in the community. Asking the anglers about their children, grandchildren, and other family members they shared fish with helped them realize the personal relevance of the advisories.”

Expanding the Definition of Environmental Health Literacy

Gray’s work with anglers exemplifies a core tenet of the expanded understanding of environmental health literacy (EHL) she and others are establishing: a version that includes collective action and community change.

Three dimensions of environmental health literacy.
Three dimensions of environmental health literacy.
(Figure from Kathleen Gray, Ph.D., 2018)

As an emerging framework, EHL is often described as an individual’s ability to connect environmental exposures to their health. Gray sees value in taking a broader view by expanding this idea to include community change as a dimension of EHL and exploring ways to measure it in her work.

“Focusing on one person’s knowledge and decisions could help that one person, but if that’s the only lens we have, we miss opportunities to make widespread change,” reflects Gray. “Looking across a community opens us up to making changes that have far-reaching benefits. That’s why I’m committed to broadening our understanding of EHL and thinking creatively about how to measure it.”

Gray and collaborators developed and tested an EHL tool to evaluate people’s understanding of toxic metals in well water. They explored how EHL depends on context and examined participants’ beliefs about with EHL.

“Early EHL measurement tools tended to focus on a person’s knowledge. For example, whether they could connect an exposure to a health outcome after being given some information,” Gray explains. “But if we know more about their health beliefs and the local community dynamics, we can better understand what might influence them to take action toward safer, healthier environments.”

Teaching and Learning from the Next Generation

Gray and her SRP colleagues enjoy working alongside North Carolinians of all ages, especially young people. With UNC SRP team member Sarah Yelton, M.S., Gray is leading two National Science Foundation-funded projects to engage youth who are underrepresented in STEM to develop local solutions for environmental impacts in their communities. Insights from other SRP teams have led to new approaches to this work.

“The value of SRP is being able to learn from a network that has experience with projects like ours,” she explains. “In our program, Sarah, our colleague Andrew George, Ph.D., and I have been in active conversation with colleagues in the Dartmouth SRP Center to learn how they used citizen science approaches with high school classes to monitor local well water quality. Harnessing the SRP network to create programs that are meaningful and personalized for our youth motivates them to take action in their communities.”

Gray and colleagues Ilona Jaspers, Ph.D., who leads the UNC SRP Research Experience and Training Coordination Core, and Antonio Baines, Ph.D., an associate professor at North Carolina Central University, collaborated to create research experiences in environmental health sciences for students underrepresented in STEM through the NIEHS-funded 21st Century Environmental Health Scholars.

“It’s a year-long program that gives students a chance to conduct research in a supportive lab setting and creates pathways for diverse people to enter this field,” says Gray. “We cannot solve the environmental health problems we are facing if our teams are not diverse and interdisciplinary.”

Gary Adamkiewicz, Ph.D. – Using Housing as an Opportunity to Improve Health

April 18, 2022

Gary Adamkiewicz, Ph.D.
Adamkiewicz directs the Community Engagement Core within the Harvard Environmental Health Sciences Core Center and directed one of the research projects in CRESSH, which is jointly funded by NIEHS, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Gary Adamkiewicz, Ph.D., is bringing the conversation about healthy environments indoors. An associate professor of environmental health and exposure disparities at Harvard University, Adamkiewicz works to understand – and control – sources of air pollution in the home, with a focus on low-income communities and public housing developments.

“A lot of environmental justice work focuses on outdoor air pollution, but we know that 90% of our time is spent indoors, and a big fraction of that is spent at home,” he explained. “So why not start there when trying to create better environments?”

As a proud first-generation college student, Adamkiewicz started out studying chemical engineering, later earning a Ph.D. in the field from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While conducting his doctoral research on developing air pollution control strategies, he became interested in asthma. But it was when he connected with Jack Spengler, Ph.D., at Harvard University that everything clicked.

“He [Spengler] was examining factors in public housing that were linked to asthma, and that work really brought together a lot of my research interests – asthma risk factors, working with vulnerable populations, and taking a solutions-oriented research approach,” he said.

Now, Adamkiewicz sees housing as an opportunity to improve health. Through his work with two NIEHS-funded centers at Harvard, he partners with community groups to reduce housing-related exposures disparities in the city.

The Indoor Neighborhood

There's a long list of exposures within the home that contribute to poor air quality and health, including gas stoves that emit nitrogen dioxide, allergens related to pest problems, and chemicals that are released from personal care products and building materials. On top of that, housing attributes, like home size and ventilation, and resident activities, like cooking practices and personal care product use, also influence indoor air quality.

“In our research we consider all these factors to get a complete picture of how an individual’s housing may shape their health – and then we work to reduce those exposures,” said Adamkiewicz.

With support from the Center for Research on Environmental and Social Stressors in Housing Across the Life Course (CRESSH), Adamkiewicz and team set out to better understand the factors driving levels of fine particulate matter air pollution (PM2.5) in Chelsea, Massachusetts homes. He teamed up with partners at the Boston University School of Public Health and the environmental justice organization GreenRoots to recruit study participants and placed real-time air monitors in residents’ homes. They also conducted a home visual assessment and collected information on activities in the home.

a low-cost portable air pollution sensor
To conduct their in-home studies, Adamkiewicz and team developed a low-cost portable air pollution sensor capable of providing reliable and continuous measures of key indoor pollutants like PM2.5 and nitrogen dioxide. Because the sensors were being placed in people’s homes, the research team made sure they were quiet, non-intrusive, and could be easily incorporated into living spaces. (Photo courtesy of Gary Adamkiewicz)

“It’s a leap of faith to allow a researcher you don’t know into your home. But we were extended trust because of our partnership with GreenRoots,” he said.

They found that families who rented and lived multifamily buildings had significantly higher levels of PM2.5 compared to homeowners. The researchers attributed this to resident activities and building-level factors, like cooking, smoking, and building size.

“What your neighbor is doing matters. If your neighbor is cooking, those pollutants are probably finding their way into your unit,” said Adamkiewicz. “People talk a lot about neighborhood effects, but there is also an ‘indoor neighborhood’ we need to consider.”

Through individual exposure reports and a community meeting, the research team returned study results to participants and provided them with actions to improve indoor air quality, such as opening windows or using exhaust fans to eliminate indoor pollutants.

“Our goals were to teach study participants about sources of indoor air pollution and empower them to take action on air quality issues at home and in their community.”

Environmental Racism in Boston

Another way Adamkiewicz is working to educate the public is through an interactive story map that explores environmental racism in Boston. Environmental racism refers to the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color.

“Environmental racism isn't an abstract idea. It happened, it’s still happening, and unfortunately, will probably continue to happen in ways that we can see in our local communities. And we wanted to tell that story,” he said.

Told in four parts – segregation, neighborhoods, households, and personal care products – the series describes how racist policies of the past, like redlining, shape exposure and health disparities still felt today.

Creation of the series was a collaborative effort among members of the NIEHS-funded Harvard Environmental Health Sciences Core Center. Adamkiewicz offered his expertise in housing and health. Tamarra James-Todd, Ph.D., tied in how social and cultural factors contribute to exposure disparities to chemicals found in personal care products. Lisa Frueh, a research assistant at the Center, brought it all together.

The team hopes the series will serve as a learning tool for the public and students from grade through graduate school.

Going Green Improves Health

Working with the Boston Housing Authority, Adamkiewicz and team showed that green public housing reduced harmful exposures and improved resident health. Compared to participants living in conventional buildings, residents in green housing – including features like electric instead of gas stoves, improved ventilation, and a smoke-free policy – had:

  • Lower exposure to PM2.5, nitrogen dioxide, and nicotine.
  • Fewer reports of mold, pests, inadequate ventilation, and stuffiness.
  • 47% fewer sick building syndrome symptoms.
  • Better asthma outcomes in children and adults, including lower risk of asthma symptoms and attacks and fewer asthma-related hospital visits or missed school days.

People, Places, Policies

For Adamkiewicz, moving his research to action is all about the three P’s – people, places, and policies.

For the people piece, he explained that it’s critical to educate residents so that they have the tools and resources necessary to create and maintain a healthy living space.

Places is all about building healthier buildings and making sure they operate and are maintained correctly.

Policies at the local level – such as smoke free housing and better pest control – can help create healthy spaces and keep them healthy for the long term. This is especially important in public and multifamily housing.

For students who want to make sure their research has an impact, Adamkiewicz offered this advice: get involved at the grassroots level, partner with community groups, listen to leaders in the environmental justice movement, and work with academics who are doing action-oriented research.

Celia Chen, M.S., Ph.D. – Leveraging Partners Across Disciplines and Continents

February 18, 2022

Celia Chen, M.S., Ph.D.,
As director of the Dartmouth College SRP Center, Chen leads an interdisciplinary team of researchers focused on understanding how people are exposed to hazardous substances and how these contaminants affect health. (Photo courtesy of Celia Chen)

Internationally recognized researcher and long-time NIEHS grantee Celia Chen, Ph.D., Dartmouth College, studies how pollutants accumulate in freshwater and marine food webs where they can pose a threat to human health.

“I grew up in a very industrialized area in New Jersey,” Chen explained. “I remember noticing the pollution as a child and being interested in understanding it better. Later, things really came full circle when I ended up doing research at the very Superfund site my family drove by regularly to go shopping.”

Today, Chen co-leads a project collaborating with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services and Clarkson University to assess the presence of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in fish and shellfish in the Gulf of Maine. By integrating this data with information on local seafood eating habits, the team aims to inform health protective policies for PFAS.

According to Chen, this project builds on nearly three decades of research through the NIEHS-funded Dartmouth College Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center.

picture of dragonfly
“Dragonflies can help document changes in mercury over time,” Chen explained. “This is a unique and practical way to see whether national and international policies to control mercury are effective.” (Photo courtesy of Dartmouth College)

"What I love about science is that it is this series of connections and collaborations with diverse groups that open up new questions and opportunities to address them," she explained. “Having the right team was critical to being able to quickly pivot to address emerging questions. We’ve leveraged our work on mercury as part of the Dartmouth SRP Center to start thinking conceptually about PFAS, because the questions surrounding PFAS now are very similar to questions we had about mercury many years ago.”

Scaling Research from Local to Global

Through the center’s community engagement and research translation activities, Chen’s research on mercury connects varied groups worldwide, from high school students, to communities, and governmental decision makers.

For example, she described the Dragonfly Mercury Project, which began as a high school curriculum and grew into a successful national initiative.

Chen and colleagues at conference in Geneva
In September 2017, Chen joined delegates from the ratifying and signatory countries of the Minamata Convention in Geneva for the first Conference of the Parties. Chen and colleagues have met at subsequent conferences to discuss strategies to implement and evaluate the effectiveness of the treaty. (Photo courtesy of Celia Chen)

“My collaborator at the University of Maine started the project over 10 years ago to teach high schoolers about how mercury moves and changes in the environment,” Chen said. “The Dartmouth SRP Center took it on and expanded it in schools in New Hampshire and Vermont. Now it has been adapted into a project led by the National Parks Service and the U.S. Geological Survey.”

Analyzing samples collected by community scientists, including by high school students in New England, demonstrated that dragonflies can be used as a simple and effective indicator of mercury contamination in fish and other wildlife.

Chen explained that this local data on mercury can inform the larger picture.

“Mercury can be a local problem where there are coal fired plants or small gold mines, but it can be transported around the world in the atmosphere as far as the Arctic,” said Chen. “Mercury and other persistent organic pollutants require that global partnerships come up with solutions that everyone can agree on.”

Sharing Information is Key

According to Chen, ending research in only a publication is a missed opportunity. Instead, information could be shared with people who can use it to make better decisions.

A key aspect of sharing information is sharing data. With SRP funding, Chen teamed up with SRP colleagues at Duke University and the University of Maryland-Baltimore Country (UMBC), as well as researchers at the University of Connecticut and the Smithsonian Institution, to share and integrate data from lab and field studies. They seek better understand factors that control how mercury moves in the environment and accumulates in fish, and the effectiveness of clean-up strategies.

She also collaborated with researchers at Boston University to combine data to provide a more comprehensive view of contaminants in fish. These data can show potential health risks by region to inform fish consumption advisories.

Working with collaborators across the globe, Chen helped produce four papers for a special issue of the journal, Ambio. Their goal was to describe the latest research on mercury, laying the foundation for how this science can help inform environmental policy, particularly activities under the Minamata Convention, a global treaty on mercury that was ratified in 2017. Chen and collaborators are repeating this exercise through an NIEHS-funded workshop to develop another series of papers to inform future discussions surrounding the treaty.

Understanding Exposures in a Changing Climate

Chen and team are also clarifying how environmental changes associated with climate may affect mercury exposure for humans. For example, they reported that when water temperatures rise, fish eat more and absorb higher levels of mercury.

“Climate change is a game changer in the way we think about how contaminants move in the environment and how people are exposed,” Chen said. “Findings on mercury show that with warming waters, humans may be exposed to higher levels of metals from eating fish.”

Based on those experimental and field studies, Chen and team will next explore how factors like organic carbon, affected by precipitation related to climate change, may alter how PFAS move in the food web.

Jennifer Carrera, Ph.D. – Joining Forces With Communities to Bridge Gaps in Public Health

January 24, 2022

Jennifer Carrera, Ph.D.
At Michigan State University, Carrera integrates sociology and engineering to identify practical and equitable solutions for communities facing environmental injustices. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Carrera)

NIEHS grantee Jennifer Carrera, Ph.D., works with communities experiencing environmental injustices surrounding inadequate water and sanitation systems to understand and address health risks.

While earning her master’s degree in sociology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Carrera became aware of the disparities in the resources communities had to properly manage their waste based on race and other social factors.

“These observations piqued my interest, and I began to ask questions about water, sanitation, and communities of color,” she said. “While clearly grounded in social causes, sociological methods offered little in the way of solutions. So, I went on to study engineering while completing my Ph.D. in sociology so I could focus on the complex dynamics between drivers of impaired access to water and sanitation, such as environmental racism, and solutions.”

Finding Solutions to Sanitation Issues

Carrera shared how some existing engineering solutions for water issues were too expensive for the communities who needed them. Others, such as the low-cost latrines used in international communities, she explained, are inappropriate for marginalized communities in the United States. There is a cultural expectation of indoor plumbing.

“Sociology offers an understanding of why problems exist, but not how to solve them, whereas engineering provides solutions to problems without understanding the root causes of why they exist,” she explained. “I decided to focus on building a bridge between these two areas to think about problems and solutions with a multi-dimensional view to create new solutions.”

Since starting as an assistant professor at Michigan State University, Carrera has focused her research on developing low-cost technologies to address the water quality and access problems that local communities struggle with. She was awarded a NIEHS-funded Transition to Independent Environmental Health Research (TIEHR) Career Award to pursue this work in Flint, Michigan.

Carrera's team work with contaminated water with residents in Flint, Michigan.
Carrera’s team works with residents in Flint, Michigan, to design effective communication strategies about contaminants in drinking water. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Carrera)

Centering Community Perspectives in Research

The heart of Carrera’s work is supporting communities’ goals to access the information they need to address water and sanitation injustices. Before submitting the TIEHR proposal, the team working on Carrera’s current project in Flint held focus groups with community members. They wanted to understand residents’ priorities and expertise from their firsthand experience responding to the public health crisis.

“We use an approach called Listening-Dialogue-Action. The first step is to listen to community members about what is happening in their community, see what questions they have about their environment and health, and talk about what solutions they would like to see put in place,” she said.

Carrera pointed out how the critical role of Flint community residents in raising awareness and organizing change surrounding water management is often passed over.

Not enough credit has been given to Flint residents whose raised voices galvanized the national conversation on discriminatory, inadequate water infrastructure and the need for environmental justice,” she stressed. “It’s the community organizing and speaking that raised awareness about what was happening in Flint. We owe a debt to the residents of Flint for all of their hard work which elevated the conversation on lead in water and aging infrastructure to the national conversation it is today.”

Through the preliminary focus groups, the team learned that the community members were more interested in how the information would be shared than in developing new, cheaper testing tools to measure contaminants in their water. They wanted communication tools to share information within the community. As a result, the team shifted its focus in the proposal, and ultimately the project, to working with community members to develop a mobile application to promote environmental health literacy and share water quality data.

A New Model for Community Driven Research

In addition to the focus groups, Carrera’s team is working to model and apply their vision of true community-driven research.

“Our research leadership team includes me and six Flint residents, who are fully co-researchers in every aspect of the project. My goal is to work towards building pathways for academic scholars to support the research inquiries of community scientists.”

She explained how their partnership works as a collective to advance research while also building capacity within the community.

“One of the key pillars of our model is creating a program for mentoring and training academic researchers to engage in reflexive listening and support racial healing for communities,” she said. “Our goal is to create a network of skilled investigators that communities can call on for specific environmental justice concerns, and we hope to continually grow that network in the future.”

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