‘Boot Camp’ Attracts Researchers Focused on Environmental Health Disparities | New

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November 4, 2021 – A group of scientists from across the United States delved deep into the foundations of environmental justice research during a new two-day crash course that aimed to uncover the roots of health disparities environment and highlight real-world solutions.

The ‘training camp’, held virtually in August, was co-hosted by the Harvard Chan-NIEHS (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences) Center for Environmental Health as well as NIEHS centers affiliated with the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and at the University. of California San Francisco. Tamarra James-Todd, Mark and Catherine Winkler, Associate Professor of Reproductive Environmental Epidemiology at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, was co-director of the course.

“Environmental justice requires identifying a problem and developing or designing a solution that can be tested and improved,” said James-Todd, whose own research has focused on how the chemicals in products are. personal care can adversely affect women’s reproductive health. “Much of the research on disparities in environmental health is descriptive – it documents disparities based on factors such as social or geographic factors – but at some point it’s important to stop documenting and start. Make. Research on environmental justice does not only ask the questions “what, where, when and how”. He also asks questions like Why Are there differences in environmental exposures, if those differences in exposure are related to the disease burden between groups, and what we can do about it. “

Interest in research from an environmental justice perspective has grown in recent years, as numerous studies have shown that environmental factors – including dirty water and air, toxic metals and chemicals , unhealthy food, substandard housing and lack of green space in neighborhoods – can contribute to racial, ethnic and socio-economic disparities in health outcomes. For example, studies have shown disproportionately high rates of asthma, obesity, pregnancy complications, cancer, and cardiovascular disease among people of color and low-income communities.

From documentation to realization

The boot camp was aimed at researchers at all stages of their careers and was taught by experts in environmental health, sociology, epidemiology, health policy, biostatistics and community engagement. It covered topics such as how to design studies that effectively assess disparities in environmental health and how to maximize the impact of research. The course also included case studies and meetings with experts in environmental justice.

The course was initially limited to 40 students, but organizers allowed an additional 20, James-Todd said. “Our waiting list was ridiculously long,” she said. “It was longer than our acceptance list.”

Lisa Frueh, MPH ’20, who works as a research assistant at the NIEHS Center at Harvard Chan School, noted that the speakers emphasized the importance of building community partnerships and working with the government sector to conduct research on the environmental justice. “The point to remember was that it is important to make sure that your research reaches the people who can benefit from its results, or is done in collaboration with them. “

It was helpful to hear examples from experts on how they incorporated environmental justice methods into their research, said Melissa Fiffer, a doctoral student in environmental epidemiology and co-chair of the Harvard Chan Environmental Justice Student Organization. She cited a case study – by Joan Casey, an environmental epidemiologist at Columbia, who co-led training camp with James-Todd – that looked at disparities in exposure to toxins from oil and gas wells. of Oklahoma.

A typical way to study this would be to simply look for differences in exposure between income, racial or ethnic groups, Fiffer noted. “But another strategy could be to study whether the disparities would decrease if there was an intervention to regulate the number of wells in these communities,” she said. “We had the context on how to conceptualize this research question as well as the opportunity to think about what methods you would choose to answer it. “

WinterSession course planned

Planning is underway at Harvard Chan School for a two-week WinterSession course which, like boot camp, will provide an introduction to environmental justice. The course will be co-taught by James-Todd, Gary Adamkiewicz, associate professor of environmental health and exposure disparities, and Zachary Nagel, assistant professor of radiobiology. “Our students were very thirsty for this,” said James-Todd.

Fiffer is excited about the new course. She said knowing more about how to frame research questions from an environmental justice perspective can affect how a study is designed and how the results can potentially be used to help policymakers or community groups to understand. take concrete steps to reduce disparities. “That’s why it’s so important,” she said.

– Karen Feldscher

photo: Kent Dayton


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