Developing a Bidirectional Academic-Community Partnership with an Appalachian-American Community for Environmental Health Research and Risk Communication

Article excerpt

BACKGROUND: Marietta, Ohio, is an Appalachian-American community whose residents have long struggled with understanding their exposure to airborne manganese (Mn). Although community engagement in research is strongly endorsed by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in particular, little has been documented demonstrating how an academic--community partnership that implements the community-based participatory research (CBPR) principles can be created and mobilized for research.

OBJECTIVES: We created a bidirectional, academic--community partnership with an Appalachian-American community to a) identify the community's thoughts and perceptions about local air quality, its effect on health, and the perception of risk communication sources and b) jointly develop and conduct environmental health research.

METHODS: We formed a community advisory board (CAB), jointly conducted pilot research studies, and used the results to develop a community-driven research agenda.

RESULTS: Persons in the community were "very concerned" to "concerned" about local air quality (91%) and perceived the air quality to have a direct impact on their health and on their children's health (93% and 94%, respectively). The CAB identified the primary research question: "Does Mn affect the cognition and behavior of children?" Although the community members perceived research scientists as the most trusted and knowledgeable regarding risks from industrial emissions, they received very little risk information from research scientists.

CONCLUSIONS: Engaging a community in environmental health research from its onset enhanced the quality and relevance of the research investigation. The CBPR principles were a useful framework in building a strong academic--community partnership. Because of the current disconnect between communities and research scientists, academic researchers should consider working collaboratively with community-based risk communication sources.

KEY WORDS: academic--community partnership, air quality, Appalachian American, community advisory board, community-based participatory research, manganese, risk perception. Environ Health Perspect 119:1364-1372 (2011). http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1003l64 [Online 16 June 2011]

Environmental health issues are prevalent and persistent in numerous communities across the United States, and particularly in disadvantaged communities. Participation by communities throughout the research process has been encouraged by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), which recently initiated the Partnerships for Environmental Public Health (PEPH) umbrella program (Birnbaum 2009). The program goal of the PEPH is to engage communities in all stages of research, outreach, and educational acriviries to prevent, reduce, or eliminate environmental exposures that may lead to adverse health outcomes with particular emphasis on populations at highest risk. The program was founded based on the earlier reports from the NIEHS (O'Fallon and Dearry 2001; O'Fallon et al. 2003) that emphasized its role in supporting community-engaged environmental health research through community-based parricipatory research (CBPR) (Israel et al. 2001; Minkler and Wallerstein 2003; O'Fallon and Dearry 2002). CBPR is defined as "a methodology that promotes active community involvement in the processes that shape research and intervention strategies, as well as in the conduct of the research studies" (O'Fallon et al. 2000). The NIEHS endorses six guiding principles of CBPR: a) promote active collaboration and participation at every stage of research, b) foster colearning, c) ensure projects are community driven, d) ensure research and intervention strategies are culturally appropriate, e) define community as a unit of identity, and f) disseminate results in useful terms (O'Fallon and Dearry 2002).

The recognition that environmental health science research is enhanced through the implementation of the CBPR principles is gaining momenrum (Brody et al. …