Data Integration Allows Researchers to Address Environmental Health Disparities

Solutions to environmental public health problems often need to concurrently address social, economic, and environmental issues. However, creating such solutions can be difficult, as relevant datasets often come from varied sources and lack standardization and interoperability. Recently, an NIEHS-funded research team in Arizona developed a data model that integrated community science data with federal and state datasets to address new questions about environmental public health.

The team’s approach integrated multiple datasets, which included proxies for community vulnerabilities and resiliencies as reflected by socioeconomic variables and access to services, such as public programs. Community resilience is the ability of a community to withstand and recover from adversity while retaining the social factors that make a community distinct. Sustained community resiliency heavily relies on the improvement of social factors and population well-being.

While community science data is important for environmental health insight, it is often underused. Obstacles to using community data include inconsistent collection methods and interoperability concerns. By including such data in their integration, the team developed a standardized way to incorporate community science data and, in doing so, laid the groundwork for its more widespread use.

“Environmental public health problems are multifaceted, so we wanted to build a model that wouldn’t just look at one variable,” explained Mónica Ramírez-Andreot, Ph.D., an environmental science researcher at the University of Arizona. “We wanted to incorporate relevant data to allow for more holistic environmental health assessments. Ultimately, we hope our process will increase the impact of public health interventions, especially in environmental justice communities where it’s important to account for the interrelated effects of culturally diverse and economically disadvantaged groups.”

Integrated Datasets Permit New Environmental Health Studies

Ramírez-Andreotta is excited about the new questions and hypotheses the integrated data will allow her team to work on.

“Currently, with disparate datasets, we were limited in the types of questions we could ask,” explained Ramírez-Andreotta. “Now we hope to ask and undercover the why, for example, why certain communities are experiencing higher levels of certain health problems, whether it’s due to rural health disparities, contaminant exposure, or both. Then from there, it’s possible to invest and leverage community resiliencies to address the vulnerabilities.”

For example, the team is addressing whether mining communities experience disproportionate levels of cancer, and if so, why. To begin to answer this, they used the integrated data to produce a county-level visualization of the incidences of different cancer types and concentrations of soil contaminants, such as arsenic and chromium, which are carcinogens. The data in this visualization came from two sources: Arizona Environmental Public Health Tracking and the U.S. Geological Survey.

data showing cancer incidences by Arizona counties

County-level visualization of cancer incidences and soil concentrations of contaminants. Crossed-out fields indicate data was missing from the source dataset. (Photo courtesy of Mónica Ramírez-Andreotta)

Integrating Community Science and Government Datasets

The team integrated community science data with information from government datasets and divided the data sources into two categories: vulnerability datasets and resilience datasets.

“By organizing the datasets into these two categories, we can more easily determine which communities have untapped resiliency that can be harnessed for sustainability,” said Ramírez-Andreotta. “Conversely, we can also see which communities are suffering and where to direct and invest efforts and help build capacity. Integrating the data in this way with our community science data, and taking a myriad of socioeconomic variables into account, allows us to generate and test hypotheses that no single dataset could have answered and informs intervention initiatives.”

Community science data had previously been collected through the Gardenroots  project, which Ramírez-Andreotta directs. Gardenroots engages community members as co-designers in research about the health of their own gardens and residential areas. The team used Gardenroots data about soil, water, and plant concentrations of various carcinogenic and toxic metals as part of the vulnerability data. On the other hand, Gardenroots data about the number of participating communities was used as an indicator of social capital, one of the markers of community resilience.

woman gathering soil sample, corn, corn husk, peas and green onions

Community members collect soil (left) and plants (right) for sampling as part of the Gardenroots project. (Photo courtesy of Mónica Ramírez-Andreotta)

The team also used information from 10 government datasets. Data were pulled from sources such as the American Community Survey, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool, and the Arizona Department of Health Services. When combining data, the team had to make deliberate decisions about reconciling information from different sources, for example how to combine data that differed in spatial or temporal scales.

Vulnerability datasets included information related to factors that put a community or individual people at higher risk for environmental public health problems. The team included:

  • Social attributes (e.g., low income and linguistic isolation)
  • Physical and environmental measurements (e.g., ozone levels and proximity to sources of pollution)
  • Health measures (e.g., diabetes and cancer rates)

Resilience datasets encompassed factors such as:

  • Economic capital (e.g., labor force status)
  • Human capital (e.g., health care coverage and internet service)
  • Political capital (e.g., number of registered voters)
  • Social capital (e.g., access to parks and elementary schools)

Ramírez-Andreotta looks forward to using the integrated data to tackle difficult environmental public health questions and thinks it will be useful to inform public policy.

“Integrated data can help inform decision-making,” said Ramírez-Andreotta. “For example, an understanding of soil quality, which we get from both Gardenroots and U.S. Geological Survey data, can inform local food production efforts and address food deserts. But taking it one step further, if the data show that soils are not suited for crops in a particular area, affected families in those areas can be connected to food assistance programs.”

The team is currently focused on optimizing the integrated data system for use by others in the field and engaging various stakeholders to inform the visual and interactive design requirements and user experience.

“Environmental public health challenges do not respect disciplinary boundaries. Therefore, transdisciplinary research efforts are needed, and we need to successfully share data and the tools that can facilitate those efforts,” said Ramírez-Andreotta. “We do not necessarily need more data, we need to integrate data being generated by all stakeholders, and we want everyone to have access to it.”

Moving Toward Health Equity in Duluth, Minnesota

For over a decade, national, state, and non-governmental organizations have been promoting a healthy and equitable built environment in Duluth, Minnesota. A 2020 paper about the external resources and local evolution toward health in all policies in Duluth describes in detail the wide range of activities, such as brownfield redevelopment and three health impact assessments. As a result, long-term trends related to shaping the city’s built environment were altered. Together, the health impact assessments had a significant effect on:

Efforts to transform the city into a healthier, more equitable place began in 2007 when it was granted designation as a Governor’s Fit City, a voluntary status meant to encourage and highlight the city’s commitment to healthy living. That city-led effort gave rise to the Healthy Duluth Area Coalition, which organized efforts to promote health and equity in the community. The coalition’s objectives focused on healthy food, balanced transportation, and health equity, and its partners included local government offices, health insurance providers, and nonprofit organizations.

The author of the paper, an NIEHS-funded researcher, Katrina Smith Korfmacher, Ph.D., directs the Community Engagement Core of the University of Rochester’s Environmental Health Sciences Center. Her 2019 book, Bridging Silos: Collaborating for Environmental Health and Justice in Urban Communities, is a collection of case studies on how several U.S. communities collaborated across sectors to address environmental health disparities.

New Health Equity Web Portal From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) developed the Health Equity Guiding Principles for Inclusive Communication web portal. The principles emphasize the importance of addressing all people inclusively and respectfully. These resources for public health professionals and health communicators, within and outside of CDC, are intended to ensure communication products and strategies account for the cultural, linguistic, environmental, and historical situation of a target audience.

Health communicators are encouraged to use a health equity lens when framing information about health disparities. For example, access to information may not be enough if people cannot understand and use that information. CDC emphasizes that community engagement provides the foundation for creating culturally relevant, unbiased communication.

The portal is not intended as a style guide, but rather as a living document that reflects CDC’s best practices. It contains key principles, such as avoiding dehumanizing language, a list of preferred terms, and other tips for how to develop inclusive communications.

World Health Organization Updates Global Air Quality Guidelines

The World Health Organization (WHO) published new global air quality guidelines in September, updating its 2005 recommendations. The updated guidelines provide recommendations on pollutant levels and interim targets for six key pollutants. Interim targets can facilitate stepwise improvement in air quality, which would create gradual, but meaningful, health benefits for populations in certain regions. The update reflects improved evidence for how air pollution affects health. For example, the WHO now estimates that air pollution contributes to about seven million premature deaths and the loss of millions of years of healthy life worldwide. Most 2021 guideline values are lower than they were in 2005. While the guidelines are not legally binding, they are meant to be an evidence-based tool to guide legislation and policies. They can also be used by researchers and health authorities for planning and impact assessments and as an advocacy tool for protecting public health.

New U.S. Climate Change and Health Equity Office Established

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services established the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE) on Aug. 30. The office addresses the impact of climate change on the health of Americans and pursues environmental justice and equitable health outcomes through climate change and health policy, programming, and analysis. Its mission is to protect disadvantaged communities and vulnerable populations experiencing a disproportionate share of climate impacts and health inequities. OCCHE will collaborate with community-based organizations, non-governmental organizations, academia, businesses, industry, and state, tribal, local, and territorial governments to conduct its varied activities. The office’s mission is framed by eight priorities, including:

John Balbus, M.D., M.P.H., senior adviser for public health to the NIEHS director, is the interim director of OCCHE.

You can register to receive updates and news from OCCHE.

Inclusion in Citizen Science

A recent policy forum article in the journal Science urges the scientific community to address issues of inclusion within citizen science. The authors caution against simply rebranding citizen science to the term community science, as many organizations have done, and urge a more thoughtful approach.

Citizen science refers to projects led by institutional researchers guiding volunteers in data collection. Its goal is to advance research by bridging science and society. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the term was intended to mean research within the established scientific enterprise that enabled people without formal scientific credentials to engage in knowledge production. However, studies have shown that participants are predominantly white adults who have college degrees and above median incomes. To address inclusion in citizen science, some organizations have renamed their programs as “community science.” The authors advise this renaming could unintentionally dilute the goals of and siphon funding from authentic community-driven efforts.

True community science is linked to protecting human rights and making measurable community-level improvements, often in the realm of environmental justice. Unlike citizen science, community science elevates local experts and place-based issues. Thus, community science has its own traditions, distinct from those of citizen science. To increase inclusion in citizen science, the authors suggest several approaches, such as making projects accessible to marginalized people, elevating culturally relevant perspectives, focusing on racial and economic disparities, and increasing diversity in project leadership.

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Michele Marcus, Ph.D.
PEPH Grantee Highlight

Michele Marcus, Ph.D.

Michele Marcus, Ph.D., studies the health consequences of psychosocial stress and pollutant exposure. As a professor of epidemiology at Emory University, she leads the NIEHS-funded Michigan polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) study. The study follows multiple generations through the Michigan PBB Registry, which was established after a widespread PBB exposure in 1973. PBBs are chemicals suspected of disrupting endocrine function, such as brain development and reproductive function, and health effects extend through generations, including the grandchildren of people exposed in 1973.

Marcus works with community members, who act as advisers and partners, to ensure the researchers’ work is responsive to community concerns. Part of Marcus’ efforts involve working with a historian to collect residents’ oral histories to better understand the toll of the exposure and how people perceive environmental risks. Community input has also been used to inform public health action, including shaping state efforts in response to contamination and educating clinicians on the health effects of PBB exposure.

Read more about Grantee

Funding Opportunites

Application Due Date Nov 03 2021
Emerging Global Leader Award (K43 Independent Clinical Trial Required)

Provides research support and protected time (three to five years) to an early career research scientist from a low- or middle-income country who holds a junior faculty position at a low-or middle-income country academic or research institution. This FOA is designed specifically for applicants proposing to serve as the lead investigator of an independent clinical trial, a clinical trial feasibility study, or a separate ancillary clinical trial, as part of their research and career development. Applicants not planning an independent clinical trial, or proposing to gain research experience in a clinical trial led by another investigator, must apply to the companion FOA, Emerging Global Leader Award (K43 Independent Clinical Trial Not Allowed). NIEHS is interested in applications that address or seek to understand how exposures to toxic environmental insults alter biologic processes, are linked to disease initiation, progression or morbidity, and activities that lead to the development of prevention and intervention strategies to reduce environmentally induced diseases in low- and middle-income countries. Topics and disease outcomes of particular interest include airway diseases, cardiovascular disease and neurological disorders, children’s environmental health and the unique vulnerability of developing children to harmful environmental exposures including outcomes such as low birth weight or premature birth, and research exploring exposures during early life stages or critical windows of susceptibility that may directly or indirectly affect the risk of developing disease.

Deadline: November 3, 2021

Letter of Intent: Due 30 days prior to the application due date

Application Due Date Nov 09 2021
Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE): Networks (R01 Clinical Trial Optional)

Supports research that will lead to better understanding of the causes and mechanisms underlying autism spectrum disorders, improved efficiency of methods of early identification and diagnosis, and more innovative and cost-effective services for individuals with autism spectrum disorders across their lifespan. ACE Networks consist of multiple sites focusing on a specific topic of research. Each network will submit one R01 application that includes subawards to the collaborating sites. An ACE Network application must require multiple sites for optimal design and conduct of the study. ACE Centers (Autism Centers of Excellence: Centers (P50 Clinical Trial Optional)) must support major multidisciplinary research programs, consisting of interdependent and interrelated research projects. Meaningful and committed interactions among the disciplines must be evident. Each project must have goals and objectives that focus on the common unifying theme that integrates the projects. Applications to both FOAs must include a Plan for Enhancing Diverse Perspectives.

Deadline: November 9, 2021

Letter of Intent: Due 30 days prior to the application due date

Application Due Date Nov 10 2021
Innovative Approaches for Improving Environmental Health Literacy (R43/R44 Clinical Trial Not Allowed)

Solicits Phase I (R43), Phase II, and Fast-track (R44) Small Business Innovative Research grant applications from small business concerns in collaboration with environmental science researchers to develop novel tools, activities, or materials to build environmental health literacy for a variety of groups, including community members, health care and public health professionals, educators, and students of all ages. See Innovative Approaches for Improving Environmental health Literacy (R41/R42 Clinical Trial Not Allowed) which solicits Phase I (R41), Phase II (R42), and Fast-track (R42) Small Business Technology Transfer grant applications. As part of its Partnerships for Environmental Public Health Program, NIEHS is interested in developing tools that build capacity, improve environmental health literacy, and support citizen science endeavors. In addition, there is a need for improved approaches for communicating Environmental Health Science concepts for diverse audiences, including K-12 education, undergraduate and graduate education, and information for health care professionals. These approaches or resources should be fit-for-purpose to meet the needs of the following audiences: community members, health care and public health professionals, educators, and students of all ages.

Deadline: November 10, 2021

Letter of Intent: October 10, 2021

Application Due Date Nov 15 2021
Mobile Health: Technology and Outcomes in Low- and Middle-Income Countries (R21/R33 – Clinical Trial Optional)

Encourages exploratory and developmental research applications that propose to study the development, validation, feasibility, and effectiveness of innovative mobile health (mHealth) interventions or tools specifically suited for low- and middle-income countries that utilize new or emerging technology, platforms, systems, or analytics to improve health outcomes. Institutions from both U.S. and low- and middle-income countries are eligible to apply to this funding opportunity, and broad partnerships are strongly encouraged. While it is not required (although it is encouraged) for applications submitted to this announcement by low- and middle-income country institutions to have U.S. partners, all applications submitted to this announcement by U.S. institutions are required to involve low- and middle-income country researchers as key personnel. Areas of interest to NIEHS include, but are not limited to: optimizing mHealth technology to prevent or mitigate environmental exposures; development and implementation of mHealth technologies that have the potential to reduce environmental health disparities; using mHealth technology to link to existing datasets to increase access to exposure information and promote health literacy; and using mHealth technology to increase access to resources in low- and middle-income countries to mitigate the effects of climate change and other natural and human-caused disasters on human health.

Deadline: November 15, 2021

Letter of Intent: October 16, 2021

Application Due Date Dec 01 2021
Notice of Special Interest (NOSI): Research Supplements to Promote Re-Entry and Re-integration into Health-Related Research Careers (Admin Supp - Clinical Trial Not Allowed)

Provides support for a mentored research training experience for individuals with high potential to re-enter or re-integrate into an active research career, after an interruption for family responsibilities or other qualifying circumstances. This program encourages re-entry and re-integration administrative supplement applications to existing NIH research grants to support full- or part-time mentored research experiences by these individuals. The supplement grants are intended to provide these scientists an opportunity to update or extend their research skills and knowledge and prepare them to re-establish their careers in basic biomedical, behavioral, clinical, translational, or social science research. Re-entry supplements provide research training opportunities to individuals with doctoral degrees who have had career interruptions of at least six months and no more than eight years. Re-integration supplements allow post-doctoral and predoctoral students the opportunity to transition to a new, safe, and supportive research environment.

Deadlines: November 1, 2021; December 1, 2021

Application Due Date Dec 15 2021
NIH Blueprint and BRAIN Initiative Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience Award (F99/K00 Clinical Trial Not Allowed)

 The NIH Blueprint and Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience Award is intended for individuals who have demonstrated an interest in a neuroscience research career in NIH Blueprint mission-relevant areas and/or BRAIN Initiative research areas. This award will support a defined pathway across career stages for outstanding graduate students from diverse backgrounds, including those from groups underrepresented in biomedical and behavioral sciences. This two-phase award will facilitate completion of the doctoral dissertation and transition of talented graduate students to strong neuroscience research postdoctoral positions and will provide career development opportunities relevant to their long-term career goal of becoming independent neuroscience researchers.

Deadline: December 15, 2021

Letter of Intent: Due 30 days prior to application due date 

Application Due Date Jan 05 2022
PHS 2021-2 Omnibus Solicitation of the NIH, CDC, and FDA for Small Business Innovation Research Grant Applications (Parent SBIR [R43/R44] Clinical Trial Not Allowed)

 Enables U.S.-owned and operated small businesses to conduct research and development that has a strong potential for commercialization. This award and the associated PHS 2021-2 Omnibus Solicitation of the NIH and CDC for Small Business Innovation Research Grant Applications (Parent SBIR [R43/R44] Clinical Trial Required) provide funds for small businesses to stimulate technological innovation in the private sector and strengthen the role of small business in meeting federal research and development needs. The related Small Business Technology Transfer announcements (PHS 2021-2 Omnibus Solicitation of the NIH for Small Business Technology Transfer Grant Applications (Parent STTR [R41/R42] Clinical Trial Not Allowed) and PHS 2021-2 Omnibus Solicitation of the NIH for Small Business Technology Transfer Grant Applications (Parent STTR [R41/R42 Clinical Trial Required)) aim to foster technology transfer through cooperative research and development between small businesses and research institutions. Applicants are encouraged to submit grant applications in response to NIH-identified topics.

Deadline:  January 5, 2022

Application Due Date Dec 01 2020
Virtual Consortium for Translational/Transdisciplinary Environmental Research (ViCTER) (R01 Clinical Trial Optional)

Fosters and promotes early-stage multi-disciplinary collaborations and/or translational research efforts among fundamental (technology and mechanism oriented), clinical (patient-oriented) and population-based researchers in the environmental health field. The collaborative teams will come together in common interest to investigate potential linkages between human health and one or more environmental stressor(s). The ViCTER program is intended to support innovative high-risk, high-reward cross-disciplinary and/or translational research projects that are more difficult to achieve in a typical R01 application. Collaboration among investigators at different institutions through a virtual consortium arrangement are encouraged.

Deadline: December 1, 2020
Letter of Intent: Due 30 days prior to the application due date

Application Due Date Feb 05 2022
Pediatric Immune System – Ontogeny and Development (INTEND) (R01 Clinical Trial Not Allowed)

Supports research which correlates immune system in general and development patterns in particular, between two or more age groups - neonates, infants, and children and adolescents to understand the evolution or immune ontogeny in human immune system development focusing on either or both, innate and adaptive immune systems with additional focus on internal factors like the microbiome and/or external factors like the environment.

Deadlines: October 5, 2021; February 5, 2022

Application Due Date Feb 05 2022
The Role of Work in Health Disparities in the U.S. (R01 Clinical Trials Optional)

Supports innovative population-based research that can contribute to identifying and characterizing pathways and mechanisms through which work or occupation influences health outcomes and health status among populations with health and/or health care disparities, and how work functions as a social determinant of health. Of particular interest are projects designed to examine pathways and mechanisms using conceptual models grounded in minority health and health disparities theories that recognize that health disparities arise by multiple and overlapping contributing factors acting at multiple levels of influence. Studies must examine NIH-designated U.S. health disparities populations. NIEHS is interested in applications that focus on the intersection of work as a social determinant of health, the physical environment (that includes exposures to toxicants), and other social determinants of health in creating or intensifying environmental health disparities at the population level. Community engaged research approaches are strongly encouraged as well as applications that move the science of environmental health disparities towards achieving environmental justice for affected populations.

Deadline: October 5, 2021; February 5, 2022

Application Due Date Mar 17 2022
Environmental Literacy Program: Increasing Community Resilience to Extreme Weather and Climate Change (NOAA Cooperative Agreement)

Supports projects that develop the collective environmental literacy necessary for communities to take actions that build resilience to extreme weather and climate change in ways that contribute to community health, social cohesion, and socio-economic equity. This funding opportunity is soliciting two types of projects through separate competitive priorities. Priority 1 awards are intended to fund new projects located in Central and Eastern Regions of the United States. Note that pre-applications are required for Priority 1 applications. Only those institutions that receive authorization from NOAA are eligible to submit a full application. Priority 2 awards will support the evolution of projects funded under the 2015-2018 funding opportunities from this program. Projects should demonstrate how they will engage children, youth, and/or adults to build these capabilities, particularly through active and social learning, during the award period. Projects should leverage and incorporate relevant state and local resilience plans and collaborate with individuals and institutions that participate in efforts to develop or implement those plans. Projects should support diversity, equity, inclusion, and climate justice in all aspects of the project.

Deadline:  March 17, 2022

Visit the Funding Opportunity Announcements Page
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