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Extramural Research

Research Needs Identified

Research Needs Identified at
Strengthening Environmental Justice Research and Decision Making:
A Symposium on the Science of Disproportionate
Environmental Health Impacts
Washington, DC
March 17-19, 2010

Symposium participants recommended several actions to reduce research or data gaps, overcome limitations in the theories and methods for conducting environmental research, particularly research supported by federal government, and limitations in practice of risk assessment. The science recommendations are described below. The first sentence is a summary statement meant to capture the main points of the individual recommendations from the Symposium that follow, including recommendations from the Environmental Justice-Caucus letter that was sent to Lisa Garcia, Senior Advisor to EPA Administrator for Environmental Justice.

1. Create and institute a new scientific research approach to develop more holistic understanding of environment and health. One of the potential outcomes of this new framework is to inform environmental policies related to environmental justice and address environmental health disparities.

Several recommendations from the symposium point to EPA to adopt a more holistic view of the environment and the impacts on population health: “ EPA/ORD’s research agenda needs to be reframed, inequality and inequity needs to be a part of the discussion [and research]; there needs to be a shift to not only look at risks and exposures, but to consider root and fundamental causes, need to start where it (inequality) begins; [the] EPA likes to start the analysis and research at a level that does not address the history and root causes of health endpoints, risks and exposures; analyze the environment in a broader context, evaluate the interaction between the social and the physical environments; a better framework is needed for combining physical and psychosocial science in research and practice; use social determinants of health and health disparities research framework to conduct research on cumulative impacts/risks; encourage multidisciplinary teams in environmental health research; develop the science of interactive effects; social science disciplines like social epidemiology indicate that [the] EPA needs to look more at upstream factors – social processes that ultimately process the disparities in risks and health outcomes; develop measures for the social environment; test the validity of available vulnerability indices and tools; encourage multidisciplinary approach to research and analysis; address the role of institutionalized racism in poor community environmental health; encourage the consideration of environmental justice in land use planning; and conduct research with direct policy implications - not research for the sake of research.”

Further, the Environmental Justice-Caucus participants recommend that “the EPA should develop a plan to ensure incorporation of the concept of vulnerability, particularly its social and cultural aspects in the Agency’s research agendas” and “… in consultation with environmental justice constituencies, incorporate community principles in its funding guidelines for research in environmental health and planned and existing actions that adversely impact public health and quality of life.”

2. Integrate perspectives from decision makers such as community residents, community leaders, community-based NGOs and community health and environmental quality advocates in the development of EPA’s scientific research agendas as well as in data collection, conduct of exposure/risk assessments and risk management decisions.

A common recommendation articulated in both the Environmental Justice-Caucus letter and through discussions the Symposium is the need to incorporate community perspectives in the development of EPA’s science/research agendas and in the conduct of exposure/risk assessments. Signatories to the Environmental Justice-Caucus letter recommend that “*the+ EPA and other publicly funded research require the expertise of environmental justice communities in the research design, implementation, recommendations and programmatic design that may result from the research” and “*the+ EPA should develop a plan to ensure incorporation of the concept of vulnerability, particularly its social and cultural aspects in the Agency’s research agendas.” Related recommendations from the Symposium state “include community representatives and perspectives in the design of studies/research; communities would like to be involved as [the] EPA sets its research priorities and agenda as well as the regulatory agenda and priorities; and there needs to be a research workgroup formed within the NEJAC.” Although the following recommendations from the Symposium stem from discussions on regulatory actions and capacity building, they also suggest that EPA/ORD needs to approach its research planning and its contributions to the development of Agency risk assessment guidance differently: “create effective mechanisms to listen to community concerns; develop culturally competent outreach processes. Hire local community folks with cultural expertise and community knowledge; and improve incorporation of exposure information for smaller communities and population groups in national risk assessments.”

3. Create EPA funding mechanisms for community-based participatory research (CBPR) and transdisciplinary research, with a specific focus on studies that will benefit disadvantaged, undeserved, and environmentally overburdened communities or groups.

The Environmental Justice-Caucus letter states that “affected communities need to be involved in the conduct of research to insure that that results are disseminated in an effective and understandable manner and that research recommendations are reviewed by the community.” Similar recommendations were made at the Symposium including “support/fund community originated and owned research; increase support/funding for community based participatory research; support participation of communities as partners in the co-production of knowledge; include community representatives and perspectives in the design of studies/research.”

Further, Environmental Justice-Caucus letter recommends that EPA should also “develop a set of guidelines for federal environmental health research that would require community participation with binding ethical and Title VI guidelines for federally funded researchers in [environmental justice+ communities and tribal nations.” This is consistent with comments raised at the symposium encouraging “federal funders of University researchers to address the unequal power dynamic that often arises between Universities and impacted communities that are subject of environmental and public health research.”

4. Collaborate with other federal government agencies on research, policy-making and other kinds of actions to address environmental health disparities.

Many comments were made about the need to strengthen interagency efforts: “to address environmental justice], need interagency collaboration; government approach to promoting and managing health is fragmented; agencies need to work together to formulate solutions for communities; other agencies should integrate [environmental justice] in all their activities.”

5. Enhance the capacities of Minority Academic Institutions (MAI) to engage in scientific research and workforce training. For instance, help MAI institutions to provide training opportunities for minority students in relevant scientific disciplines.

Several statements were made at the Symposium that there was a lack of diversity in the academic institutions represented at the meeting and as presenters. HBCUs need to be involved in this new and expanded area of research on environmental health disparities.

6. Develop and implement a multi-media approach to cumulative contamination exposures in environmental justice communities. Restructure risks assessment practice to better account for multi-stressors that cumulatively impact community and population health and recognize that the concepts that vulnerability and health disparities are interrelated.

These recommendations from the Environmental Justice-Caucus letter echo many of the concerns and other recommendations raised at the Symposium on the topic of cumulative impacts. Comments from the Symposium include “communities see their environment as a whole not pieces; [the] EPA needs to address the issue of non-concordance between risk assessment results and community experience; vulnerability should be an integral part of cumulative risk assessment even it must be analyzed using qualitative measures; incorporate social vulnerabilities and cultural risks in risk assessments and cumulative risks/impact assessments; incorporate background risk in risk assessment; consider using qualitative approaches in risk assessment; adopt a quality of life approach; risk assessment should move away from individual lifestyles to one that considers the social context; focus on health and well-being as opposed to risk, illness and death; [the] EPA should recognize that stressors in communities that are unaccounted for are not considered in risk assessments; adopt a systems approach to risk assessment and decision making; and [the] EPA should use information on cumulative impacts in all its decisions.”

7. Establish programs and provide federal government support to increase technical and scientific capacity in communities. This capacity building can help the public to address environmental health issues and to allow them to effectively participate in environmental health decision making.

The Environmental Justice-– Caucus letter recommends that “grant/funding programs be expanded to provide support directly to [environmental justice] communities, [environmental justice] organizations and networks, Tribes and Native organizations to assess and act on environmental justice issues.” Additionally Symposium participants advocated that “ EPA include community-based organizations, leaders and residents in the co-production of knowledge and the scientific bases for environmental decision-making; make resources available to develop technical skills of community leaders on science and decisions; develop technical expertise within the communities; and commit resources to develop networks and centers/consortia with universities to support community groups with technical matters and participation in decision-making.”

8. Develop analytic and assessment tools, and data collection approaches that could be used by community health advocates and environmental justice groups.

Availability of appropriate tools and training on use of such tools would also help increase technical capacity of communities. For example recommendations include “work with local governments to provide access to data sources; influence their [local governments] data collection approaches; develop mapping tools that communities can use; encourage community engagement in the collection of data by government; explore the approach of using communities to collect data to overcome limitations of government data such as privacy issues and poor geospatial resolution; and develop zoning maps that are accessible to communities; regional councils of government can provide accurate city level data for community research.”

9. Build capacities and skills among EPA/ORD staff and scientists to conduct research and other science related activities in equal partnership with impacted communities. This step must include diversifying EPA’s technical and scientific expertise in the social sciences.

Concomitant with efforts to increase technical capacity in communities, EPA/ORD needs to build up its capacity to work with communities in order for real progress to be made. Several recommendations from the Symposium address this issue: “train EPA staff on effective outreach and dialog with communities; develop capacity within the Agency; provide training for EPA risk assessors and managers.

10. EPA and other agencies should integrate environmental justice in all EPA activities, including policy making, regulatory actions, research and public outreach.

An important place for intervention for environmental justice is regulation and rule-making. Example recommendations from the Symposium on the use of science and information to address environmental justice concerns in decision making include “develop measures of environmental health disparities to monitor temporal and spatial trends in disparities, and also whether environmental regulation is effective; stratify research data by race and income to better analyze disparate impacts; account for differences in the effect of lead on hypertension which is more pronounced in chronically stressed individuals in regulatory assessments and policies; develop tools for equity assessment; test the validity of available vulnerability indices and tools; base decisions on good science that passes the tests of reliability, repeatability and peer review; good data are legally defensible; and present policy choices and equity impacts to Administrator as a standard consideration in decision-making.”

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