Environmental Health Sciences Hub Celebrates Community Partnerships

July 28, 2021

On a chilly February day in 1994, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order that charged 11 federal agencies with developing policies and procedures to address the disparate impact of environmental hazards on communities of color and low-income populations. That same day, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) hosted a conference that emphasized the importance of community involvement in research to address environmental injustice.

In the wake of this watershed moment, the NIEHS launched a series of centers across the country to support research and training into how pollutants and other environmental factors contribute to disease. A unique and defining feature of these centers is community partnership: community members are no longer passive subjects in scientific studies, but true partners who collaborate with scientists on everything from study design to the dissemination of findings. 

One of 20 of these centers nationally, the Center for Environmental Health in Northern Manhattan (CEHNM) has contributed research and community outreach to improve the health of people in New York City and beyond. This summer, the Center launched a special webpage to highlight more than 20 years of partnerships between scientists and community environmental justice leaders—both of whom are featured in a pair of short videos. The webpage also highlights more than a dozen research projects and policy successes (more on those below).

Launched in 1997, CEHNM now boasts a research team of 40 scientists from across Columbia Mailman and Columbia Irving Medical Center with broad expertise in analyzing pollutants and their associated health risks. Many make use of the School’s environmental health sciences lab, one of the most advanced of its kind in a school of public health. The scientists work in tandem with community partners to disseminate easy-to-understand information on ways people can protect themselves from harmful chemicals. They also provide scientific testimony at public hearings and briefings and roundtables for policymakers. 

Since the early 2000s, researchers at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health have collaborated with WeACT, an environmental justice organization based in Harlem, through CEHNM. The highlight is a longitudinal study of mothers and their children to understand the health impacts of air pollution and other environmental chemicals. In another ongoing collaboration, researchers Markus Hilpert and Diana Hernández teamed up with South Bronx Unite on an air pollution study of a neighborhood surrounded by highways, fossil fuel power plants, waste transfer stations, diesel-truck facilities, and a large maritime industrial area. 

The new CEHNM webpage highlights several policy changes shaped and studied by Mailman researchers. In New York City, researchers Diana Hernández and Matthew Perzanowski published research that demonstrated the impact of Clean Heat policies to phase out No. 6 dirty fuel oil used in some apartment buildings. At the state level, Manuela Orjuela-Grimm testified with evidence to support of the TRIS-free Children and Babies Act that was then signed as an expanded bill in 2014 banning harmful chemicals in children’s products. Nationally, Frederica Perera testified in Congress and to other policymakers on the science to support the Frank Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, which overhauled the process for regulating toxic chemicals. 

“We have a lot to be proud of,” says Hernández, an associate professor of sociomedical sciences who directs the CEHNM Community Engagement Core. “Since 1997, the scientists have worked hand-in-hand with local communities to identify environmental health threats and pursue solutions, from steps individuals and families can take to protect themselves to policies to protect neighborhoods that have been historically exposed to high levels of environmental pollutants. We look forward to many more years of partnership.” 

“Partnership between scientists and the surrounding communities is at the heart of what the Center does,” says Andrea Baccarelli, the Center’s director and chair of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences. “It is only through these collaborations that we can ask the right research questions and translate those findings into meaningful change.”