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Your Environment. Your Health.

Partnerships for Environmental Public Health

PEPH Newsletter

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Volume 11, Issue 11: December 2020

How a Moss Project Is Helping a Community Address Heavy Metal Air Pollution

Students collect moss from a tree in Seattle.

Students collect moss from a tree in Seattle. (Photo courtesy of Chris Zuidema)

The Moss Project, as it is fondly known among participants, embodies the spirit of community science coordination. In this project, bits of moss gathered by local youth serve as reliable scientific samples to help guide air quality improvements near the Duwamish River in Washington state. A five-mile segment of this waterway is a Superfund site, contaminated from decades of industrial practices and runoff.

This project exemplifies the work conducted by Dale Blahna, a research social scientist with the U.S. Forest Service. He created the Green-Duwamish Learning Landscape (GDLL) to advance community priorities and community participatory research and empower youth and communities to have the necessary data to take actions and improve their own health. The GDLL engages the leaders of community organizations, local government officials, environmental nonprofits, and government and university researchers to take advantage of their groups’ overlapping interests.

“Our community was concerned about the public health impact of pollution in the area, so we co-designed a community science project using moss as a bio-indicator of heavy metal air pollution,” said Paulina López, Executive Director of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition (DRCC), one of the community groups involved in the GDLL. “Additionally, we wanted to involve youth in moss collection and sample preparation, since youth-centered community science projects with environmental education can benefit youth.”

The youth involved in the project are from Seattle’s Georgetown and South Park neighborhoods, which are located near several pollution sources and are disproportionately affected by the Superfund site. The neighborhoods are among Seattle’s most racially and ethnically diverse communities, with a greater proportion of foreign-born residents and people of color compared to the city as a whole, as well as a high proportion of residents who earn less than 200% of the federal poverty rate.

As part of the initial pilot project, local high school students were engaged to collect moss samples throughout their neighborhoods. Students were recruited through DRCC’s Duwamish Valley Youth Corps, which engages local youth in outdoor work projects and offers mentorship and training to pursue environmental career paths.

While the GDLL had experts from a variety of fields, including community organizing, health and environmental advocacy, ecology, urban forestry, and social science, they needed an additional partner with expertise in air pollution and environmental health.

“The Forest Service hasn’t traditionally been involved in much public health research. Our connection to Duwamish Valley communities was primarily through urban forestry and restoration projects, which we saw as potential parts of pollution mitigation measures,” said Monika Derrien, a social scientist and one of Blahna’s U.S. Forest Service colleagues. “We needed a local researcher with environmental health expertise to advise on fieldwork, lab work, and data analysis, which was important for connecting the dots to meet community needs.”

That’s where Chris Zuidema, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, came in. He is a recipient of funding through Dr. Lianne Sheppard’s NIEHS Biostatistics, Epidemiologic, and Bioinformatic Training in Environmental Health grant.

Chris Zuidema teaches students how to use lab equipment to analyze moss samples.

Chris Zuidema teaches students how to use lab equipment to analyze moss samples. (Photo courtesy of Chris Zuidema)

“Dale invited me to join the GDLL as a science adviser to increase the group’s environmental health capacity,” said Zuidema. “The project was exciting because of its focus on air pollution, the environment, and community-engaged research.”

Zuidema helped the GDLL team adapt existing moss collection and preparation protocols for high school students. He also taught the students how to process the moss samples they collected and prepare communication materials about the project’s findings for the community, media, and stakeholders.

The group published the results of their pilot project in a recent paper, Toward Environmental Justice in Civic Science: Youth Performance and Experience Measuring Air Pollution Using Moss as a Bio-Indicator in Industrial-Adjacent Neighborhoods. They showed that local impacted youth could be meaningfully engaged as community scientists while learning about connections between their environment, pollution, and their health, through a place-based environmental research project.

The Moss Project: Beyond the Pilot

Zuidema and other GDLL scientists are continuing to analyze the heavy metal data from the moss, guided by community concerns. The GDLL team has developed and collected secondary data sources to investigate whether the heavy metals in the moss could be coming from nearby transportation and/or industrial sources. These answers will help inform mitigation efforts.

Some of the students voluntarily participated in additional, related activities in the year following the pilot moss project. For example, some students attended a community results-sharing session, and some mapped the moss results to guide considerations of contaminant sources. Three youth participants volunteered to present the data at the fall 2020 meeting of the Lower Duwamish Clean Air Task Force.

Given the success of the pilot, the GDLL is already planning for the future. The GDLL will engage new students in future moss collection efforts to refine the understanding of heavy metal air pollution in the area. Additionally, as the GDLL refines its process of engaging and training students, it will involve the students in other phases of the work, including interpreting results and initiating mitigation actions, with the ultimate goal of improving the health of residents in the Duwamish Valley. Zuidema will continue in his role as science adviser and data analyst. He has recently joined an effort among GDLL partners to apply for funding to support future work in Georgetown and South Park related to air pollution, asthma, and community empowerment.

Creating the Green-Duwamish Learning Landscape

While the Environmental Protection Agency leads river cleanup efforts, several community groups and local government offices, such as the DRCC, Just Health Action, the Duwamish Infrastructure Restoration Training Corps, the Seattle Office of Sustainability & Environment, Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment, and others, had also been working toward a cleaner Duwamish Valley before the GDLL was formed. With so many separate efforts, there was significant overlap in interests, but a lack of coordination.

“We wanted to work with Duwamish Valley communities to address their concerns,” said Blahna. “This meant listening to the various groups that were part of the GDLL and working together to take advantage of everyone’s expertise. Together, we are much more powerful than if everyone was siloed, working individually within their own projects. Once we brought everyone together, our big-picture goal was to build and support power within the affected communities through the research process and findings.”

National Art Competition Aims to Raise Awareness of Minority Health and Health Disparities

The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) recently launched the Envisioning Health Equity Art Challenge as part of its 10th anniversary. Teens and adults are invited to create images (paintings, drawings, photos, digital art, etc.) that express NIMHD’s vision of an America in which all populations will have an equal opportunity to live long, healthy, and productive lives. The competition’s goal is to raise public awareness about the prevalence and impact of health disparities and inspire further research on minority health and health disparities. Submissions are being accepted until February 5, 2021. Prizes will be awarded in two age categories: teen and adult, and entries may be submitted by an individual or a group.

New Environmental Health and Land Reuse Training Now Available

A new Environmental Health and Land Reuse Certificate Program is available from the National Environmental Health Association. The certification program was co-developed with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. It is a free, online asynchronous course with the goal of building capacity within communities to help remediate and redevelop contaminated land reuse sites. The program explores the environmental and health risks and social disparities associated with contaminated land, key players in land reuse planning and policy, and redevelopment techniques to improve community health. The training has six modules, such as Engaging with Your Community and Communicating Environmental and Health Risks.

NIEHS History Comes Alive With Postcards

In a recent history series, Postcards from Durham, John Schelp used postcards from his private collection to talk about the beginnings of Research Triangle Park and the effects of NIEHS coming to the state. The story Schelp tells begins in the 1960s when a federal committee recommended that NIH build its new environmental health institute in Research Triangle Park. Schelp, who has worked at NIEHS for 30 years, is the special assistant for community engagement and outreach for the Office of Science Education and Diversity. He regularly gives NIEHS campus tours and Durham neighborhood walking tours. He has also worked with many NIEHS-funded Centers and projects to convene community forums.

Strategies to Improve Well Testing and Lower Health Risks from Arsenic

Improving water testing from private wells is important for public health. Researchers from the Columbia University Superfund Research Program Center recently published a study that demonstrated improved arsenic testing in private well-water. Researchers identified neighborhood homes that were near wells with high arsenic concentrations, and then used clear messaging to communicate to the households about testing and the risks of arsenic in drinking water. By targeting specific homes, the researchers made the information about water testing personally relevant, an approach that more than doubled the efficiency of water testing over untargeted messaging. In a second study, researchers found that water treatment systems that removed arsenic from well water reduced homeowners’ risk of developing skin cancer. Overall, these two studies demonstrate the effectiveness of targeted messaging in helping households make informed decisions that can reduce health risk.

Template Available for Clinical Trials With Social Interventions

The Protocol Template for Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, by the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, is a resource for communicating information about a clinical trial that involves a behavioral or social intervention. It was adapted from an NIH-Food and Drug Administration template to include terminology and approaches used by behavioral and social scientists. The template may also be used to anticipate decision points and potential challenges before a study launches, even if there is no required stand-alone clinical protocol.

children playing on grass

PEPH Environmental Health Chat Podcast Series

Children, Nature, and the Importance of Getting Kids Outside

In this podcast, Children, Nature, and the Importance of Getting Kids Outside, hear from Leyla McCurdy about how spending time in nature can increase physical activity, reduce the risk of chronic disease, and improve a sense of emotional well-being. Also learn how health professionals and unique initiatives are working to prescribe nature to improve the health of children and their communities. McCurdy has over 20 years of professional experience in health and environment and has been working on the topic of nature and health for several years.

You can find more podcasts on the Environmental Health Chat webpage or subscribe to the series on iTunes. We want your feedback! Send comments and ideas for future podcasts to

Listen to more PEPH Podcasts
BJ Cummings
PEPH Grantee Highlight

BJ Cummings

BJ Cummings, the manager of the Community Engagement Core of the University of Washington Superfund Research Program and the University of Washington Center for Exposures, Diseases, Genomics, and Environment, is passionate about connecting university researchers with communities that are affected by substances or exposures that the researchers are studying. She has spent more than 20 years working on environmental justice, especially in the Duwamish River area. She recently published a book, The River That Made Seattle, about the environmental and social history of the Duwamish. She also founded the nonprofit Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, which was involved in the moss project highlighted in the feature story. Her community organizing efforts throughout the 1990s helped get the river declared a Superfund Site.

Read more about Grantee

Funding Opportunities

Application Due Date Dec 04 2020
Research to Action: Assessing and Addressing Community Exposures to Environmental Contaminants (R01 Clinical Trial Optional)

Encourages multidisciplinary projects to investigate the potential health risks of environmental exposures of concern to a community and to implement an environmental public health action plan based on research findings. Projects supported under this program are expected to employ community-engaged research methods to not only conduct research but also to seamlessly translate research findings into public health action.

Deadline: December 4, 2020

Check out the Research to Action Currently Funded Grantees webpage for a sense of the types of projects supported through this FOA.

Application Due Date Dec 15 2020
Competitive and Administrative Supplements for Community Interventions to Reduce the Impact of COVID-19 on Health Disparity and Other Vulnerable Populations

Supports research to test community interventions focused on the prevention (or slowing) of COVID-19 transmission, evaluate local and state policies and programs intended to mitigate COVID-19 exposure and improve adherence, and reduce the negative impact of the multifaceted consequences on the health of populations who experience health disparities and other vulnerable groups. This may include leveraging and scaling existing resources (e.g., health education materials, technology, social media, mass media, social support networks, social services). In domains and populations in which the evidence base is limited, the development, testing, and implementation of novel or adapted interventions to address the negative health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic may also be needed to address the unique needs of populations.

Deadline: On a rolling basis through December 15, 2020

Application Due Date Feb 01 2021
NIEHS Support for Understanding the Impact of Environmental Exposures on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)

Addresses the urgent need for mission-relevant research to understand the impact of environmental exposures on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) and its causative agent, the virus SARS-Cov-2. NIEHS is particularly interested in applications that will provide insight into the role of environmental exposures in pathogenicity, transmission, individual susceptibility, or prevention and intervention strategies. Examples of environmental exposures relevant to the NIEHS mission include: toxic chemicals, air pollutants, second hand tobacco smoke, e-cigarette vapors, metals, and other environmental chemical exposures that may impact health outcomes. NIEHS is accepting applications addressing COVID-19 through the administrative supplement, urgent competitive revision, and time-sensitive mechanisms.

Deadlines: January 4, 2021; February 1, 2021; March 1, 2021; April 1, 2021; May 3, 2021

Application Due Date Jan 15 2021
Pediatric and Reproductive Environmental Health Scholars Program (K12 Independent Clinical Trial Not Allowed)

Provides new healthcare professionals with state-of-the-art environmental health training that blends academic research and practice-based applications in real-world settings. The program will provide supervised research career development opportunities to assist junior faculty. The goal of the Pediatric and Reproductive Environmental Health Scholars (PREHS) program is to create of a strong network of healthcare professionals who possess the skills and knowledge to address the complexities of pediatric and reproductive environmental health. Applications for this award must propose a comprehensive career development and research plan that: (1) has environmental health research relevant to pediatrics and reproductive health and is within the mission of the NIEHS, (2) serves as a mechanism for gaining research competencies in environmental medicine related to pediatrics and reproductive health to advance scholars' medical knowledge, patient care, interpersonal and communication skills, professionalism, and systems-based practice, and (3) provides scholars with the necessary environmental public health and clinical expertise to advance their careers as academic researchers and physician scientists, such as improving scientific and grant writing skills, developing effective advocacy skills, and fostering expertise in risk assessment and risk communication.

Deadline: January 15, 2021
Letter of Intent: December 15, 2020

If you missed the pre-application webinar on November 23, slides and FAQs will be available on the web on the Pre-application Webinar for the Pediatric and Reproductive Environmental Health Scholar Program page.

Application Due Date Jan 21 2021
Research on the Health of Women of Understudied, Underrepresented and Underreported (U3) Populations (Admin Supp Clinical Trial Optional)

Administrative supplements to support research highlighting health disparities among women in the US who are underrepresented, understudied, and underreported (U3) in biomedical research. The common pathways for the manifestations of ill health and disease, differential risk, risk exposure, resilience, morbidity, and mortality at the individual, community, and national levels are areas of particular research interest. Proposed research must address at least one objective from the strategic goals 1, 2, or 3 of the 2019-2023 Trans-NIH Strategic Plan for Women's Health Research "Advancing Science for the Health of Women."

Deadline: January 21, 2021

Application Due Date Jan 25 2021
Administrative Supplements for Summer Research Experiences for Students and Science Teachers

Supports summer research experiences in the environmental health sciences for high school students; college undergraduates; master’s degree candidates; medical students; secondary school science teachers; and science professors from community, junior, or technical colleges as well as primarily undergraduate institutions. These supplements are intended to introduce students and teachers to research in the environmental health sciences that would not otherwise be available to them through their regular course of study.

Deadline: January 25, 2021

Application Due Date Jan 29 2021
New Cohorts for Environmental Exposures and Cancer Risk (CEECR; UG3/UH3 Clinical Trial Not Allowed)

Supports innovative scientific research in new prospective Cohorts for Environmental Exposures and Cancer Risk (CEECR) to addresses knowledge gaps in cancer etiology and carcinogenesis processes with a focus on environmental exposures, as well as the genetic, lifestyle, and behavioral factors that modify risk across diverse populations. Applicants are encouraged to use validated and reproducible innovative techniques to measure environmental exposures relevant to the proposed scientific research questions. The cohorts should include racial/ethnic minorities and understudied populations to address the unequal burden of cancer that currently exists in those populations. This FOA is published in parallel with RFA-CA-20-050 “New Cohorts for Environmental Exposures and Cancer Risk (CEECR) Coordinating Center (U24 Clinical Trial Not Allowed)”, which supports a Coordinating Center. New prospective cohorts and the Coordinating Center funded under these FOAs together will constitute the CEECR program. The main role of the CEECR Coordinating Center will be the integration of efforts across the CEECR program and the facilitation of research activities. The CEECR Coordinating Center will be expected to do this by communication, coordination, and collaboration across the awarded cohorts, in coordination with NIH program staff, and relevant community-based organizations.

Deadline: January 29, 2021
Letter of Intent: Due December 15, 2020

Application Due Date Feb 15 2021
Superfund Hazardous Substance Research and Training Program (P42 Clinical Trial Optional)

Supports problem-based, solution-oriented research Centers that consist of multiple, integrated projects representing both the biomedical and environmental science and engineering disciplines; as well as cores tasked with administrative (which includes research translation), data management and analysis, community engagement, research experience and training coordination, and research support functions. The scope of the Superfund Research Program Centers is taken directly from the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986, and includes: (1) advanced techniques for the detection, assessment, and evaluation of the effect on human health of hazardous substances; (2) methods to assess the risks to human health presented by hazardous substances; (3) methods and technologies to detect hazardous substances in the environment; and (4) basic biological, chemical, and physical methods to reduce the amount and toxicity of hazardous substances.

Deadline: February 15, 2021
Letter of Intent: January 15, 2021

Application Due Date Mar 08 2021
Environmental Influences on Aging: Effects of Extreme Weather and Disaster Events on Aging Populations (R01 Clinical Trial Optional)

Supports research to advance our understanding of the impact of extreme weather and disaster events in aging human populations. This FOA (PAR-19-250) and its companion FOA (PAR-19-249), which focuses on underlying mechanisms of aging utilizing animal models, will help explicate the behavioral, biological, and socioecological processes that occur during extreme weather or disaster events that affect aging processes. Through the integration of the population studies and the companion mechanistic studies FOA, the goal is to improve the health and well-being of older adults via increased knowledge about extreme weather and disaster preparedness, response, and recovery.

Deadline: March 8, 2021
Letter of Intent: Due 30 days prior to the application due date

Visit the Funding Opportunity Announcements Page
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