Academic-community partnerships are key to educate the public and inform public policy
In environmental health, education and protective policies are fundamental to safeguarding the health of communities, especially those most vulnerable to harmful exposures like children, pregnant women, low-income families, and people of color. From ensuring access to clean water to legislation prohibiting toxic chemicals in toys and personal care products, scientific research is informing progress at national, state, and local levels.
Environmental health scientists at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have a long history of supporting evidence-based protective policies and practices. For this reason, they are frequently called upon by community organizations and concerned residents for expert guidance on the health effects of environmental exposures and strategies to create safer environments.
One such community partner and environmental advocate is Paula Rogovin, a long-time New Jersey resident and community organizer who has made it her mission to address environmental injustices when she sees them. A former New York City teacher, Ms. Rogovin knows the power of education, and that to affect change, many voices are needed.
In December 2021, Ms. Rogovin contacted Mount Sinai for information on how a proposed power plant in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark would affect the health of residents. The Ironbound is a designated Environmental Justice community of predominantly BIPOC residents who are disproportionately impacted by pollution sources and hazardous waste sites. Armed with information from Mount Sinai scientists and doctors, Ms. Rogovin and fellow residents continued to organize an effort to stop the project from moving forward.
“Mount Sinai scientists not only provided the data which verified how and why the Ironbound is overburdened with multiple pollutants from multiple sources,” said Ms. Rogovin, “but they showed why adding any additional pollution would be detrimental to the community.”
“We sent the Mount Sinai letter to Governor Murphy, the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, and many elected officials in our effort to get them to help stop the power plant,” she added.
In January of 2022, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy temporarily halted the approval for the plant, requiring the plans to undergo an environmental review and public engagement process. This outcome was an environmental justice victory for the community and received wide coverage.
“Environmental health research has the potential to directly benefit communities. We have a responsibility to apply science to support communities who are overburdened by pollution like the Ironbound, where children are diagnosed with asthma at nearly 4 times the national rate” said Sarah Evans, PhD, MPH, Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at Icahn Mount Sinai.
The benefits of community engagement at Icahn Mount Sinai are bidirectional, helping the communities served while also informing the direction of environmental health research. Guided by an advisory board made up of environmental advocates and community leaders in East Harlem and the South Bronx, the community engagement and research teams are committed to understanding local concerns and collaborating on initiatives to build healthier neighborhoods.
Mount Sinai scientists and clinicians frequently educate decision makers through participation in public hearings or presentations to community groups throughout New York and surrounding communities. Recent examples include testimony presented by Dr. Sarah Evans on the health impacts of toxic forever ‘PFAS’ chemicals in food and consumer packaging, which contributed to the passage of Connecticut SB926, signed into law in July of 2021. In October 2020 she presented on the health effects of synthetic pesticides before the Philadelphia City Council; in December the Council passed a bill to restrict the use of pesticides on public land. Presentations related to pesticides, artificial turf on playing fields, cleaning chemicals and COVID protocols in schools are regularly requested.