Supporting Research to Address Environmental Health Disparities

By Jim Johnson

Where you are from can determine a lot about you—what sports team you cheer for, what foods you like, and if you say yinz, y’all, or you guys. But where you are from can also impact your health and well-being. Depending on where you’re from, you may not have had access to healthy food, your home might have had lead paint, or you might have lived close to a busy highway where thousands of cars emitted pollution every day.

children play outsideSome communities are more affected than others. For example—children, older adults, and people with preexisting conditions are more likely to suffer negative health effects when exposed to pollution, and people of low socioeconomic status are more likely to live near busy highways, rail yards, and industries where they can be exposed to pollution from these sources. These are disproportionately impacted communities and we need to make sure that they are not overlooked.

That’s why I’m happy to announce that EPA, in partnership with the National Institutes of Health, is awarding $25.5 million to five universities to create Centers of Excellence on Environmental Health Disparities Research that will work with local communities to address these issues. Over the next five years, the centers will conduct research to understand environmentally driven health disparities and improve environmental conditions surrounding disadvantaged communities.

The centers will be headed by the following universities:

  • Harvard University will study how housing may affect birth weight, childhood growth trajectories, and risk of death from cardiovascular disease, and whether improved urban housing may benefit health.
  • Johns Hopkins University will compare urban and rural effects of poverty on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and the impact of improved dietary intake on preventing or mitigating disease progression.
  • University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center will examine how contact with metal mixtures from abandoned mines affects rural Native American populations through exposures related to inadequate drinking water infrastructure, reliance on local foods, and other uses of local resources to maintain their traditional lifestyle and culture.
  • University of Arizona will work with indigenous populations to examine chemical contamination of traditional foods, water, air, and household environments, while increasing environmental health literacy.
  • University of Southern California will study how environmental factors may contribute to childhood obesity and excessive weight gain during pregnancy in Hispanic and Latino communities.

With the support of these revolutionary centers of excellence, EPA is working to overcome these community-based issues and protect human health.

About the Author: Dr. James H. Johnson Jr. is the Director of EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research. NCER supports leading edge extramural research in exposure, effects, risk assessment, and risk management by managing competitions for Science to Achieve Results and People, Prosperity and the Planet grants, STAR and Greater Research Opportunities Fellowships, and for research contracts under the Small Business Innovative Research Program.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

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Precisely Right

By Dustin Renwick

Close up image of a the inside of a pill bottle filled with blue pills.During his State of the Union Address a few weeks ago, President Obama outlined his vision for a Precision Medicine Initiative, “a bold new research effort to revolutionize how we improve health and treat disease.” The proposal has received praise from universities, think tanks, and the National Institutes of Health.

One EPA researcher has been at the forefront of this topic for more than a decade already.

Christian Daughton—a recipient of three EPA Pathfinder Innovation Project awards—has focused his research on topics related to precision medicine, more commonly known as personalized medicine.

The basic premise: treatments targeted to the individual instead of the statistically average patient.

In the past, Daughton says, small-town doctors could know their patients and corresponding medical histories, which facilitated individualized treatments, prescriptions and doses. The White House effort updates that historical ideal.

“This new initiative from President Obama is making use of the latest advancements in clinical research to capitalize on making drugs more effective,” Daughton says.

His work at EPA explores the intersection of medicine and the environment. The drugs prescribed in the doctor’s office can eventually end up, in some form, in our waterways. They can contaminate our water resources and harm the species that call those aquatic environments home.

Pharmaceuticals typically enter the environment through human excretion and bathing, as well as improper disposal, such as dumping pills down the drain or tossing them in the trash.

“Human health is intimately connected with the health of the environment,” Daughton says. “If one is ignored, there can be ramifications for the other. But the connections—such as disposing of unused medicine or simply daily excretion and bathing—might not be obvious, and they might not be short-term. That’s why they often escape people’s attention.”

“If you optimize healthcare for treating the patient and the environment as one, you optimize the choice of medication, if any, as well as the dose regimen for the individual patient.”

When doctors tailor precise prescriptions for each patient, they can minimize leftovers, theoretically reduce costs throughout the healthcare system, and succeed in dispersing fewer doses to the environment.

That all adds up to a reduction in the amount of medication that finds its way down a drain or into landfills. Another major advantage: potentially reducing the incidence of recreational use and accidental poisonings among children.

“It’s hard to find any negatives to it other than it’s not easy to implement,” Daughton says.

But the White House has taken a first step toward that reality by making precision medicine a priority.

About the Author: Writer Dustin Renwick is a student contractor with EPA’s Innovation Team and a frequent contributor to “It All Starts with Science.”

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.