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UTMB-CET: Community Outreach and Engagement Core

Division III: Public Forums & Toxics Assistance

John Sullivan, MA
Director, Public Forums & Toxics Assistance

Division III provides consultation and toxicological information to explain linkages between toxic exposures and human disease in a wide range of venues. Outreach includes but is not limited to informing policy at the behest of the cities such as Houston and Galveston, carrying out Encuentros, producing a Community Environmental Forum Theater in traditionally medically underserved neighborhoods, and engaging in ongoing hurricane relief and environmental health disaster preparedness in communities in southeast Texas and Louisiana.

Current Initiatives

Environmental Justice Encuentro Network. The Environmental Justice (EJ) Encuentro network fosters working relationships utilizing the NIEHS Partnerships in Environmental Public Health (PEPH) model emphasizing coordination of existing initiatives and resources focused on cross-sectional environmental health collaborations among regional stakeholders and NIEHS UTMB-CET science, and the development and evaluation of innovative educational/risk communication tools. Encuentro sessions typically feature: a) progress reports on active Community Science Workshop (CSW) projects; b) networking between community organizations and environmental scientists to match site-specific exposure concerns with research skills and interests; c) developing new relationships and additional CSW population-based environmental health proposals; d) strategic scientific/educational and advocacy planning in response to emerging environmental health issues; e) skill development workshops in health survey methodology, data interpretation, CBPR theory and practice, maintaining effective and ethical research/intervention relationships; f) development of effective environmental public health and EJ outreach strategies to enhance the knowledge base of communities and inform public policy; g) evolving multi-media social marketing and communication strategies focused on behavior-environmental health linkages; and, h) presentations and interactive workshops in application of popular arts and education experiential learning techniques to environmental community health education and research translation into the public health promotion sector. Future COEC public forum workshop events, community environmental theater productions, and toxics assistance technical support will be developed, coordinated, and marketed through the Encuentro Network.

Ports & Goods Movement Community Research Initiative: In 2007 COEC personnel and representatives from TEJAS attended the initial conference of the Trade, Health & Environment Impact Project-focused primarily on environmental health problems as a consequence of expanding port activities in Long Beach and Los Angeles. COEC continues to participate in the Houston area public dialogue focused on crafting development policy for Port of Houston expansion and increased use of the transportation infrastructure for goods movement. General goals and principles for dialogue and research in this area include:

  • Building organizational network, assembling appropriate analytic tools, and developing momentum to deal with the environmental health challenges of port expansion / goods movement within the Houston region
  • Sharing local, regional, national and international concerns
  • Employing a CBPR approach to incorporating community and worker concerns when setting development goals impacting proximate neighborhoods and communities
  • Developing scientific research agendas that provide necessary exposure, health effects, health disparities, and cumulative risk linkage data for multi-level decision-making
  • Developing a culturally fluent, translational interface for disseminating relevant scientific and engineering information within the stakeholder network and to the general public
  • Incorporating state of the art exposure science, environmental monitoring, air pollution modeling, public health and regional economic planning into a model for port facilities expansion and increases in goods movement
  • Making health and safety considerations an integral reference component for port facilities expansion, goods movement and transportation decisions
  • Gradual incorporation of Port Authorities in Corpus Christi, Port Lavaca (Matagorda system), and Beaumont, Port Arthur into coastal Texas Ports Network
Houston Ship Channel

Disaster Response & Hurricane Readiness. Building on past lessons, COEC will design, organize, and facilitate a series of six disaster preparedness workshops targeting vulnerable communities throughout the Gulf Coast. Initial targets include the following communities: Galveston Island, High Island, Texas City, La Marque, Bacliff, San Leon, as well as Port Arthur, Beaumont, Orange, Bridge City, and Sabine Pass, among others. These communities have recently absorbed the impacts of Hurricanes Ike and Rita. From these communities, workshops will extend into the Rio Grande Valley and Houston bayside and Ship Channel communities. In 2012 the UTMB-CET will host a conference of community-based organizations, public health and medical practitioners, local government and state and regional regulatory officials, and industrial representatives to showcase cutting edge developments in climate/meteorological science, disaster epidemiology, hazardous chemical abatement, and to evaluate and strengthen the disaster response capacity of local communities upon conclusion of the workshop.

Transdisciplinary Gulf Coast SECURE Center Workshops. The COEC also assisted with development of the Science, Education, and Community to Respond to Emergencies (SECURE) Center, a collaboration of seven Gulf Coast institutions supporting community-based disaster planning and response to improve human health, for which the COEC is designing and implementing six disaster preparedness workshops targeting vulnerable communities. These workshops will include the following components: 1) promoting mental health in disaster situations (emphasis on neighborhood level first aid); 2) peer-to-peer environmental health promotoras style educational process: Tox 101 and risk communication fundamentals; 3) social determinants of health/health impact assessments and components of a healthy neighborhood; 4) community mapping and introduction to GIS applications; 5) community hazards identification project (possible photo voice application); and, 6) short duration community designed advocacy project based on concepts in previous modules.

Response to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon well on the Macondo Prospect and the subsequent oil spill. Since shortly after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, the COEC has been engaged in ongoing dialogues with affected community organizations, building upon long-standing partnerships and relationships. Communications have included initial town hall meetings to assess immediate needs and concerns of the communities affected, ongoing discussions related to changing concerns and needs, an assessment of research, education, and outreach interests related to the spill, and a series of face-to-face meetings to more formally involve these groups as quickly as possible in a discussion with UTMB-CET investigators related to establishing a CBPR project embedded in the IHSFC.

Discussions subsequently led to a research partnership between the affected communities and researchers from UTMB, the University of Pennsylvania, Texas A&M University at Galveston, Louisiana State University, and the University of Arizona to formulate a set of questions and research approaches to provide the coastal and scientific communities with needed answers regarding the risks associated with exposure to oil and dispersants.

Direct ties to the COEC include establishing a Gulf Coast coalition to carry out outreach, education, dissemination, and translation efforts. COEC directors Drs. Jeanne Hewitt (Milwaukee) and Marti Lindsey (Arizona) are serving in an advisory capacity to ensure cultural competence of both research and outreach efforts with Asian and Tribal entities, respectively. A U19 consortium grant centered on CBPR has been submitted in response to a RFA-11-006 to address the issues identified by the Gulf coast community partners.

Education and Communication Working Group of the National Conversation on Public Health and Chemical Exposures This working group which includes COEC representation is specifically charged with, 1) building professional capacity, designing formats for training in public health implications of chemical exposures, 2) advancing public knowledge of health issues associated with chemical exposures and the effects of household chemical use on indoor air quality, and, 3) developing evidence-based general principles of risk communication to reduce confusion and increase inter-agency coordination. This working group will coordinate closely with similar groups focused on serving communities and scientific understanding to develop effective translational strategies for education/risk communication. Input from working groups in this project will inform national public health policy, particularly within sponsoring agencies, the National Center for Environmental Health, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Get more information (PDF) on the National Conversation on Public Health and Chemical Exposures Education & Communication Working Group.

New Developments

Cumulative Risk Project in Conjunction with CEHD & CIDA, Inc. Division III is working with UTMB's CEHD and community partner, CIDA, Inc., to analyze data bases pertinent to environmental public health, and develop conclusions pertaining to cumulative risk in West Port Arthur, Texas. This translational outreach and education includes crafting and delivering risk messages to the community, and secondarily, to educate regulatory and governmental audiences on the human health implications of cumulative risk and alleviating risk burden. Education will reflect findings regarding monitored air emissions, health effects associated with air toxics identified through monitoring, effects of social determinants of health on community vulnerability and resiliency, and possible remedial measures as suggested by the community and mediated by CIDA, Inc. An end product also includes the development of a toolkit for other communities facing similar situations.

Past Projects

Air Quality and the City of Houston. The greater Houston region has long suffered from a reputation for poor air quality. The City of Houston, with strong leadership from Mayor Bill White, became more aggressive in seeking to improve air quality by convening a task force made up of academic experts. Jonathan Ward, then co-director of Division III, served on this task force and a report, titled "A Closer Look at Air Pollution in Houston: Identifying Priority Health Risks," is available on-line at An overview of the COEC's air quality work was also featured as an episode of the State of Tomorrow documentary series.

Project COAL was an EJ study, funded as a component of the NIEHS Partners in research program. Partners included Center investigators, COEC, and DeMadres a Madres, a non-profit community service center in Houston's Near Northside neighborhood, which had historically provided services to young mothers addressing nutrition, prenatal education, and lead screening. Project COAL's purpose was to assist residents with understanding and identifying childhood health risks from exposure to lead and environmental asthma triggers in their homes, learn to minimize them and obtain assistance in abatement or related health problems, and to communicate information to governmental bodies and other stakeholders to inform policy and programs.

Hurricane Relief and Preparedness: Katrina, Rita, Ike. In September 2005, the UTMB COEC was asked to lead national relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. When Hurricane Rita came ashore only three short weeks later, all divisions of NIEHS and UTMB joined in a national effort, including the majority of NIEHS COECs, in providing assistance to hurricane victims and impacted communities. This fostered long-term associations between the UTMB-CET and community groups in southeast Texas and Louisiana. In conjunction with the community, the COEC developed hurricane-related methods and materials, including an environmental health risk assessment included in a production: "…after the wind, child, after the water's gone…," a documentary of results from a COEC scoping visit to Hurricane Katrina/Rita impact areas. This film was presented in numerous venues. DVDs were also distributed as a supplement to the Special Katrina edition of The Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved (2007). John Sullivan has also presented at the American Public Health Association (APHA) and the Race, Place and the Environment post-Katrina conference. The NIEHS pilot project, Project CEHRO, included presentations by the EPA, the US Army Corps of Engineers, local toxicologist Wilma Subra, the Gulf Restoration Network, Bayou Grace, and Croisant. The associated video is now available, Hurricane Readiness: a Way of Life on the Bayous.

Third Column

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