Scientists Urge Racial Equity in Federal Environmental Research

People of color and other underrepresented groups can help shape federally funded environmental health research, as can researchers that typically aren’t involved in such studies, scientists said during two recent international conferences.

The International Society for Environmental Epidemiology and International Society of Exposure Science focused on people’s exposure to air pollution, chemicals, and climate change. The conferences came as the Biden administration works to ensure that 40% of benefits from federal clean energy and other relevant funding combats racial inequities and helps communities disproportionately impacted by pollution.

Native American communities, for example, can identify ways they can inhale, touch, and ingest pollutants that the Environmental Protection Agency’s exposure models don’t account for, said Karletta Chief, an associate professor at the University of Arizona. Chief’s work focuses on climate change’s impact on indigenous communities.

Including diverse communities can yield unexpected results, said Peggy Shepard, co-founder and executive director of the Harlem-based WE ACT for Environmental Justice. She recalled being surprised when business owners and residents in northern Manhattan prioritized solar panels over some other environmental equity assistance.

“In our communities, we’ll get brownouts” that can crush small mom-and-pop groceries that the neighborhoods depend on as the stores lose their wares due to power loses, Shepard said.

Chief and Shepard were among more than 1,500 attendees in more than 20 countries that participated in the back-to-back conferences, which ran Aug. 23-Sept. 2.

Identifying Solutions

Researchers need to look for ways to protect people from an array of identified climate-change induced health problems, Erin Haynes, a University of Kentucky professor, said at a session hosted by the National Institutes of Health.

Climate change and justice are both global and local issues, said Christina Hemphill Fuller, an assistant professor at Georgia State University.

Smaller institutions serving minority communities are positioned to help their neighbors, so agencies should consider offering more, but smaller grants, instead of multimillion-dollar grants often awarded to a few large universities, she said.

The National Institutes of Health sought advice as part of a broader Department of Health and Human Services initiative illustrated by its new Office of Climate Change and Health Equity.

`Real Lives Now’

Federally-funded grants should include scientific disciplines, such as sociology and anthropology, that aren’t often involved in environmental health research, said Tamarra James-Todd, an assistant professor at Harvard University. Those disciplines can help health researchers better understand ways human dynamics affect a situation, she said.

Black girls’ bodies, for example, often have higher concentrations of chemicals used in personal care products, James-Todd said. Hair product use may be one of the drivers, she said.

Lingering questions include whether a culture that penalizes black women’s natural styles contributes to those exposures that may harm those women, said Ami Zota, an associate professor at George Washington University.

Research must explore how long-standing structural racism is “affecting real lives now,” she said.

Antiracist Policies

Analyses of extremely large data sets from multiple sources can help visualize and quantify disparities in racial and ethnic groups’ exposures to chemical and other stressors, said Jonathan I. Levy, an environmental health professor at Boston University.

The Center for Research on Environmental and Social Stressors in Housing, which consists of Boston and Harvard universities and three nonprofit groups, are doing that, he said. Projects combine information such as land use patterns, green space availability, pollution sources and levels, weather patterns, and demographics.

That combination can reveal patterns such as the disproportionate impact in- and outdoor air pollution has on communities of color and influence policies, he said. Antiracist policies “would produce racial equality in exposures and risks between racial groups,” Levy said.

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