How PRHE supports environmental justice through science

For too long, the health ramifications of pollution and toxic chemicals have fallen disproportionately on communities of color, so the Biden administration’s commitment to address environmental injustices is a welcome development. PRHE advised the Biden transition team on ways to improve chemical policy and return science, health, and environmental justice to the forefront of EPA’s work.

Understanding and addressing environmental impacts of toxic chemicals is central to PRHE’s research mission. And this work is vital to environmental justice — understanding the multiple chemical exposures that can harm low-income populations and communities of color, with a focus on the combined impacts of such exposures and psycho-social stress, which can be due to factors such as poverty, food insecurity, discrimination, and racism.

As we transition to a new administration, we want to share why environmental justice is vital to health and how our work contributes to achieving health equity.

Environmental health research is central to our work and we make every effort to ensure our studies capture the challenges faced by affected communities. For example, PRHE manages one of the few cohorts that includes Spanish-speaking participants for the National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) study. This work involves practicing cultural humility as we recruit participants to our study, making sure all study materials are translated into Spanish, and offering our participants resources to advocate for healthier environments. During COVID, we also worked to connect our study participants to resources such as the Patient Food Pantry, which provides meals and funding for families experiencing hunger.

PRHE also leads the “Fresno Biomonitoring Study,” which is examining the effects of multiple chemical exposures, including pesticides and other chemicals, on Latina pregnant women in an area with some of the highest rates of preterm birth. The goal of this work is to better understand how chemicals and pollutants affect those most at risk.

Science and Policy
During the Trump administration, we actively worked to highlight the importance of science to guide policies that protect public health and the environment. A big part of that work was focused on providing oversight and analysis of EPA’s implementation of the 2016 updated Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). PRHE is the only academic scientific institution substantively and regularly engaging in public comments and testimony to challenge the Trump EPA’s failure to protect vulnerable populations, including communities of color, pregnant women and children, and workers.

Our team also worked with over 40 scientists and chemical policy experts from around the country to develop recommendations for EPA to better protect the environment and public health. Many of these recommendations focus on incorporating environmental justice principles — expanding definitions of susceptible populations in risk assessment to include discrimination, racism, and poverty; better accounting for how people are vulnerable to chemicals; allocating additional resources to monitor and reduce environmental pollution in overburdened communities; and making systems more robust and transparent so that people are aware of the pollutants to which they are exposed and can hold EPA accountable to reduce inequitable exposures. Overall, we are focused on improving current environmental laws using the best available science to reduce and eliminate disparities and improve health equity.

Education and Outreach
An important part of PRHE’s work is outreach to health-care professionals and others to inform them about environmental impacts on health. This work has contributed to major medical organizations’ opinions on the importance of reducing harmful chemical exposures, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics which have made addressing environmental justice a priority. Our EaRTH Center is co-sponsoring “Environmental Justice and Human Health: Creating Systemic Solutions,” a mini medical school series open to the public that will begin on Tuesday, February 23. The series will examine human health and disease through the lens of our most vulnerable populations and how racism underlies why some communities suffer more from environmental health harms, and explore solutions.

The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others that sparked racial justice protests around the country last year helped lead PRHE to examine how our work is framed and how we promote diversity and equity within our organization. PRHE’s internal Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee led discussions and workshops on systemic racism, and we participated in #ShutDownAcademia day, during which our entire faculty and staff took part in all-day meetings to focus on anti-racist work. Also, we are in the process of continuing to develop new Standard Operating Procedures to better integrate equity into our recruitment and hiring practices to ensure greater diversity among our staff.

One of the activities we are most proud of is working with the UCSF/Kaiser Undergraduate Research Internship program over the past five years. This program connects socioeconomically and racially diverse college students with research faculty, postdocs, and staff mentors for a summer internship to guide them to postgraduate education. Many of these interns have gone on to medical school or earned a master’s in public health or other professional degree. We are excited for their impact as future scientists and physicians who are truly representative.

PRHE is grateful for the tireless and important work of environmental justice organizations. The following are a few we have worked with and we hope you will consider supporting their efforts: