2022 NIEHS Scientific Meeting Hosted by Mount Sinai Provides a Path to Address Racism and Health Inequities
Environmental health scientists from across the country gathered in New York City on July 13-15, 2022 at the first NIEHS Environmental Health Sciences (EHS) Core Centers in-person meeting since 2019. Hosted by the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai under the leadership of Robert Wright, MD, MPH, Chair and Professor of the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health, it brought together 275 individuals, including 185 who attended in person and 90 who participated virtually.
“We are grateful at Mount Sinai to have had the opportunity to host this important event,” said Dr. Wright. “The scientific community needs time and space to come together to learn and support each other. The fact that we could finally do that in person was fantastic,” he added.
The opening keynote by Richard Woychik, PhD, current NIEHS Director, highlighted priorities at NIEHS and new opportunities and resources for environmental health scientists. Dr. Woychik emphasized the importance of expanding exposomic research, or the study of the totality of environmental exposures, as well as supporting computational biology and data sciences. Climate change and health, translational toxicology, and environmental justice and health inequities represent important areas of scientific focus at NIEHS and were explored throughout sessions during the three day meeting.
“If we truly want to understand the impact of the environment, we’ve got to get beyond studying individual pesticides, studying individual flame retardants, studying individual PFOA or PFAS. It’s not just about physical chemical exposures. It’s also about the social, the ecosystems and the lifestyle factors that contribute to the environmental impacts on human health,” said Dr. Woychik.
The EHSCC meeting was preceded by the 5th Exposome Symposium, hosted by the Mount Sinai Institute for Exposomic Research which also featured a keynote address by Dr. Woychik. To learn more about the field of exposomics, watch the symposium presentations here.
Kenneth Olden, PhD, who served as NIEHS Director from 1991 to 2005, shared his perspective on how the public understanding of how the environment affects health, particularly the health of the most vulnerable communities, has evolved over the past 40 years and how building public trust is essential.
Dr. Olden noted that at the beginning of his tenure as NIEHS director the environmental justice movement was taking off at the same time that the human genome project was getting significant public attention. Genetics could not explain the worse health outcomes experienced by communities of color.
It is the social determinants of health—the conditions in our environment where we live, work, and play—that are the major factors that contribute to health inequities. Genetics alone did not have all of the answers, and it was important that environmental health leaders were at the table to explain the role of the environment in shaping health to policymakers and the broader public.
Under Dr. Olden’s leadership, community engagement became a critical part of the work of EHS Core Centers in order to translate the science back to communities in meaningful ways.
More than 60 Community Engagement Core leaders from centers across the country attended the July meeting, and discussions focused on supporting environmental justice communities, anti-racism work, as well as the importance of reconnecting with one another and self-reflection at a time of deep crisis across the nation.
Mount Sinai’s Community Engagement Core led by Maida Galvez, MD, MPH, Sarah Evans, PhD, MPH, and Luz Guel strives to translate environmental health research into action that improves the health of communities across New York City, particularly those that experience disproportionately high exposures to pollutants and stressors due to longstanding discriminatory practices and policies.
“Kudos to NIEHS EHSCC speakers and attendees for advancing the national conversation on anti-racism and environmental justice across areas spanning research, training, community engagement and translation, said Dr. Maida Galvez, Professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health and Pediatrics at Icahn Mount Sinai.
During the meeting, affinity spaces were offered to people who share a racial identity to gather, self-reflect, and heal through community building. Almetta Pitts, LCSW, Founder and CEO of Attemla Consulting, LLC, led the session.
“It was the first time affinity groups have ever been offered at an NIEHS meeting. In my 20 years as a clinician scientist and as a Filipina-American, I found the experience incredibly meaningful. The conversations we started will continue in our own institution and at centers across the country in the months and years ahead,” Galvez added.
Supporting program junior scientists early in their careers was also a priority at the meeting. More than 50 junior faculty and trainees attended, and several presented their work during a plenary session focused on Early Stage Investigators or in the poster session.
“It was very exciting to have a platform for the outstanding work the Early Stage Investigators are engaging in across all the centers. I think it also provided a great opportunity to learn about additional resources for career advancement, and foster new collaborations,” said Maria José Rosa, DrPH, Assistant Professor, Environmental Medicine and Public Health, Icahn Mount Sinai.
A plenary session chaired by Ellen J. Hahn, PhD, RN, FAAN, Professor in the Colleges of Nursing and Public Health at the University of Kentucky, brought together representatives from several centers who shared best practices on the recruitment and retention of historically marginalized BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) trainees and faculty. Participants discussed paths forward to building more inclusive and diverse research environments.
The COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affected BIPOC communities due to factors in the environment such as access to health care and social structures, and there are parallels in the climate crisis. A plenary chaired by Nicole Errett, PhD, Assistant Professor at the University of Washington focused on the NIEHS DR2 Network, which Dr. Errett co-chairs. Discussions highlighted the importance of developing plans, infrastructure and relationships necessary for time sensitive investigations in the aftermath of disasters and how to build resilient communities.
The climate crisis is arguably the most serious threat to human health, with historically marginalized groups facing the greatest impact. The final plenary chaired by Carmen Marsit, PhD, Director of HERCULES, Emory University’s NIEHS-funded center, highlighted climate change and health programs occurring at various levels, looking at the local, national, and global scale and how the scientific community is using community engagement, epidemiology, and climate impact modeling approaches to study a variety of health-related impacts of climate change.
The meeting also served as an opportunity for center administrators from across the country to share best practices and speak with NIEHS representatives about topics that directly impact their centers.
“The administrators managing the EHSCC programs are essential, as they are involved in all aspects of center activities. I am confident that the discussions begun at the meeting will continue well into the future,” said Roz Paupaw, Center Administrator at Icahn Mount Sinai.
“We all share a deep commitment to support one another and ensure the success of all of our centers to advance environmental health research and ultimately lead to better health outcomes for all,” add Paupaw.
To learn more about EHSCCs, visit NIEHS’s website at https://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/centers/core/index.cfm
To learn about Icahn Mount Sinai’s NIEHS-funded Environmental Health Sciences Core Center, visit the Center website.