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Environmental Justice: What’s Science Got to Do With It?

EPA researcher describes new research efforts to better understand the link between environmental health and justice.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson addresses Symposium participants.

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair, Nancy Sutley, recently reconvened the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (EJ IWG) in a meeting held at the White House. The workgroup will guide, support, and enhance federal environmental justice and community-based activities. By coordinating the expertise and resources of federal government agencies, the EJ IWG will work to identify projects where federal collaboration can support the development of healthy and sustainable communities.  

Scientific understanding of environmental exposures and effects is essential for supporting this effort.

To help advance that understanding, EPA cosponsored a scientific symposium that featured presentations from several respected researchers in the human health and health disparities fields, as well as community activists from across the country.  Symposium participants developed recommendations, and EPA committed to developing an action plan to invigorate its activities supporting environmental justice.

Science Matters recently spoke with one of the symposium organizers, EPA’s Devon Payne-Sturges, Dr.P.H., about the groundbreaking nature of the meeting. 

SM: What were the goals for the symposium?

Dr. Payne-Sturges: We wanted to present the current scientific evidence of disproportionate environmental burdens faced by communities. We wanted to get more researchers—from EPA and sister agencies such as the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)—interested in research to better understand the disparities in environmental health across communities. And we wanted to engage community activists in the science issues as well.   I think we were successful. 

SM:  What were the concerns addressed in the presentations and discussed among the participants?

Dr. Payne-Sturges:  Concerns in the EJ community are about health impacts: the burden of asthma in their communities, living next to petrochemical industry, and what that means for the incidence of cancer in their community.  These are health concerns first and foremost.

There is a whole world of scientists, researchers, and policy advocates working on health disparities.   Many of the same issues that they focus on are caused by the same forces that are also creating hazardous environmental conditions in these communities.

We presented research on social determinants, defined by the World Health Organization as the social conditions under which we are born, grow, live, work and age. Circumstances of economics as well as social policies contribute to environmental health disparities and disproportionate impacts.  In addition, presenters demonstrated how this information can be incorporated into environmental decision making.

SM:  How did the community activists respond to the symposium presentations?

Dr. Payne-Sturges:  Initially there was some tension and frustration. They came wanting to hear about new initiatives to solve problems they have been living with.  They felt that what they were hearing in the presentations was not news. But those of us here at EPA know we have to have evidence and data to support our actions because they can be challenged. I think the community representatives began to recognize that you need good analytical tools, information, and the science.

SM:   Most people might think that research in environmental justice is primarily social science.  Are others working in this field today?

Dr. Payne-Sturges: Yes, the environmental health researchers.  The health disparities researchers.  And in the last five years, there has been this emerging collaboration between environmental health professionals and the social scientists who are blending their approaches, concepts and data for EJ issues. We want to promote that collaboration.
SM:  How will the Agency do that?

Dr. Payne-Sturges:  There were many recommendations from the symposium that fall under one of four themes:  science, policy, capacity building, and health and sustainable communities.  Each theme will have an agency workgroup tasked with getting input from all the EPA offices and regions about how their programs can contribute in each of these areas.

SM: What science questions present the best opportunity for research and collaboration?

Dr. Payne-Sturges:  EPA Assistant Administrator for Research and Development Paul Anastas’ Path Forward sets the priority for ORD to do integrated transdisciplinary research (ITR).  The questions we need to explore in EJ are tailor-made for this approach for gaining better understanding of science questions and developing solutions.  We are developing an action plan that encourages a range of activities:

  • create mechanisms to include perspectives from impacted communities in identifying questions for EPA’s research agendas,
  • translate research results to inform actions that benefit disadvantaged, underserved, and environmentally overburdened communities,
  • develop cumulative risk assessment methods that incorporate community social contexts (non-chemical stressors) and indicators of population vulnerability,
  • collaborate with other federal agencies on health disparities research and policy,
  • solicit input from EPA advisory committees to ensure that the Agency is moving in the right direction.

SM:  It sounds like an ambitious agenda.

Dr. Payne-Sturges:  It is! Ambitious and exciting, especially for those of us at EPA who have been working in the EJ arena.  With the EJ IWG leading the way and Paul Anastas fully committed to implementing a comprehensive research program in this area, we may have much to share and celebrate at EJ science symposiums for many years to come.

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