A look at two environmental health teams championing action-oriented science and health literacy
The Center for Health Literacy promotes health literacy in many domains, and environmental health literacy is one of the Center’s priority areas. Public health professionals have a responsibility to provide clear, actionable information for people to understand environmental hazards, conditions, and solutions.
The Center collaborates with Dr. Sacoby Wilson and Dr. Amy R. Sapkota, School of Public Health faculty members, who sit at the helm of two of the School’s flagship environmental health initiatives. Although different in mission, practice, and goals, their respective activities are at the forefront of groundbreaking environmental health studies and health literacy.
According to staff from the NIH National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, environmental health literacy is a multi-disciplinary concept that reflects an “understanding of the connection between environmental exposures and human health” (Finn and O’Fallon, 2017). The following brief interviews elaborate Dr. Wilson’s and Dr. Sapkota’s perspectives on the importance of environmental health literacy.
‘Knowledge is power’: The intersections of environmental justice, health literacy, and human rights
Dr. Wilson serves as the Program Director of the Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health Laboratory (CEEJH), which educates communities on environmental justice and health issues.
Environmental justice, according to Wilson, is part of the larger movement toward equal rights for all. “Environmental health justice is a social movement to address the differential impacts of environmental hazards...on communities of color, immigrant populations, low-income individuals,” he said. “[It’s] part of a larger tapestry. Part of a larger human rights fight.”
According to Wilson, certain environmental hazards often disproportionately affect economically marginalized and under resourced communities. Hazards like power plants, incinerators, and landfills may release air or water contaminants that can lead to adverse health effects in community members. “In many cases, the populations who are impacted have limited political or economic power,” Wilson said. “They are targeted for these hazards.”
CEEJH is leading numerous projects to try and change that. By providing technical assistance to community-based organizations, Wilson and his team aim to educate impacted populations about potential environmental hazards. When the laboratory is contacted by a community organization or advocacy group, the team deploys tools and actively works within the community. Wilson describes the center’s interactions with community groups as a “partnership framework.”
Aside from physical resources, CEEJH aims to offer education and public outreach. That is impossible without health literacy, according to Wilson. “A key foundational role is increasing people’s knowledge...which enhances their capacity to act and then hopefully would drive them to act,” he said. “You have to have health literacy in that. You have to have a health literacy construct to make that happen.”
CEEJH’s campaigns brings science to community engagement and civic organizing. When individuals are more aware, they participate more in their communities and the political structures that will help bring new policies, Wilson said.
“When people know more about their exposures and the pathways of exposures and their health effects, that knowledge is power,” he said. “Health literacy is critical in that.”
The laboratory is currently working on numerous projects in Maryland, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Even though the geographic and social demographics are different with each project, Wilson’s vision remains constant: connecting data and science to effect powerful change.
“How can we use science to address problems?” Wilson said. “Not just doing science for science’s sake but doing science that’s applied and action-oriented.”
Every drop counts: Water reuse, clear communication, and health literacy
Dr. Sapkota is the Project Director of CONSERVE: A Center of Excellence at the Nexus of Sustainable Water Reuse, Food and Health. The Center is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, and engages in research, outreach and education activities in the Mid-Atlantic and Southwest regions of the United States, as well as Israel and the West Bank.
CONSERVE’s mission is to facilitate the adoption of on-farm treatment solutions that can enable the safe use of recycled water on food crops. Sapkota noted the urgency of shifting to alternative water sources for food production, such as advanced treated wastewater or reclaimed water. Currently, a common source for irrigation water is aquifers, underground layers of rock that contain fresh groundwater and can easily be accessed. However, Sapkota relayed that key aquifers are being overpumped in important food production areas. High quality freshwater to grow food is in short supply, according to Sapkota, and effective, sustainable water reuse approaches are needed.
Sapkota also stressed the importance of clear communication when working in environmental health. Although CONSERVE is based on highly technical science and technology, the scientific results directly affect community members -- which is why clear communication is crucial. Scientists can be more effective communicators and explain how scientific findings can inform policies and affect and protect specific communities, Sapkota observed.
And it’s not only scientists that play critical roles in CONSERVE. The team is also comprised of legal experts, animators, computer scientists, extension specialists, behavioral and social scientists, economists, and other professionals from across the country. Each expert plays a role in carrying out CONSERVE’s mission -- from testing new water treatment technologies on farms to finding the right words to explain the research.
Some people may not be familiar with or have a favorable view of reused water or advanced treated wastewater on food crops, so Sapkota’s team understands that communication with different groups is part of their work. To address perceptions, it is important to transparently communicate about the benefits of agricultural water reuse as well as the existing concerns and knowledge gaps. She also encourages scientists to collectively adopt standard water reuse terms that are most understandable by the general population in order to reduce confusion.
Clear communication is also carried out through CONSERVE’s accessible educational programs and public outreach. “We want to reach as many communities as possible,” she said. “We don’t want cost to be a barrier.”
At the end of the day, Sapkota thinks that one of the most important things that CONSERVE can do is to help shift the mindset around water in the United States from a perspective where water is often taken for granted to one where all water sources are highly valued, protected and effectively managed. This will ensure that we make every drop count.
Finn, S., & O'Fallon, L. (2017). The Emergence of Environmental Health Literacy—From Its Roots to Its Future Potential. Environmental Health Perspectives, 125(4), 495-501. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1409337