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New grant will help Emory researchers assess the health impact of climate change on Atlanta neighborhoods
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Tony Van Witsen
Health Sciences Writer
head shots of researchers

Principal investigators Saria Hassan (left) and Eri Saikawa (right)

— Robert A. Lisak (Hassan)

It’s long been known that environmental problems don’t impact everyone equally. Years of research have shown how those living in neighborhoods with low income or socioeconomic status, poor access to health care or education or lack of community resources frequently bear a larger share of environmental stressors such as pollution.

Now two researchers at Emory have received a $1.3 million grant from the United States Environmental Protection Agency to precisely measure the cumulative health impact, particularly from chemical and non-chemical exposures, on underserved communities in Atlanta and how climate change is making it worse.

“The impetus behind the work that we’re trying to do is this idea of cumulative exposure,” says Eri Saikawa, associate professor at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health and Emory College of Arts and Sciences. “That it’s not just one thing, but multiple things that are affecting the health of this community.”

“You might be living right next to a highway,” adds Saria Hassan, assistant professor at the Emory School of Medicine, who heads the project with Saikawa. “Which means you’re exposed to a lot more air pollution than anybody else. You might also be living in an area that has very little green space, which means that area is going to get a lot hotter than other areas. You might also live in a flood zone. So if there’s significant rainfall, your house will end up flooding.”

These unequally distributed environmental issues combined with socioeconomic disadvantages create a double burden for residents in certain neighborhoods.

Both researchers have a longstanding interest in the health and environmental problems of disadvantaged populations, particularly in minority neighborhoods of Atlanta. The new project will work with communities of Atlanta’s West and Southwest side including English Avenue, Vine City, Atlanta University Center, Ashview Heights, West End, Oakland City, Adair Park, Pittsburgh and Mechanicsville, neighborhoods with high levels of air pollution, heavy metals in the soil, contaminated water and high energy burden.

Hassan and Saikawa are working closely with Eco-Action — a community-based organization working on environmental justice and with longstanding ties to these Atlanta neighborhoods — as well as colleagues including Dr. Na’Taki Osborne Jelks at Spelman College and others at Emory including Dr. Noah Scovronik, Dr. Yang Liu and Dr. Charles Moore.

Hassan and Saikawa’s study seeks to break new scientific ground by creating a cumulative health index to incorporate the expected effects of climate change into what’s already known about environmental health effects in the neighborhoods they’re studying. Climate change, of course, is a worldwide process with results that are difficult to calculate at smaller scales — yet researchers have already learned to simulate future climate effects down to areas as small as 14 kilometers.

Hassan and Saikawa hope to improve this by focusing on climate change as it affects a single Atlanta neighborhood. “We are hoping to get to the neighborhood level by using what already exists to potentially go to one kilometer resolution so that we can say something about the neighborhood,” says Saikawa.

Some residents are already collecting data themselves, installing a custom-built Citizen Science App, developed by co-investigator Jelks at Spelman, on their phones to spot and identify environmental exposures not available in public data. Besides gathering data, residents will also help shape the research design itself. The investigators are working closely with community members and with Eco-Action to learn what importance the community attaches to the different chemical, non-chemical and climate factors that influence their health as well as what interventions would help.

Engaging community members in this “participatory group modeling,” as it’s called, is a change from traditional research with its rigid boundaries between scientists and the people they studied. The results will be used to construct causal loops, diagrams mapping how health hazards such as low-income housing in a high-risk flood zone can lead to increased mold exposure, which leads to illnesses such as asthma and more frequent hospitalizations.

“It provides us with a framework to talk to community members and understand all of the factors contributing to a complex problem,” Hassan says. “The loops tie what is causing the problem, the problem and its outcome back to the cause itself.”

The causal loop models will be built by task forces that include people living in the neighborhoods being studied, those suffering from the chronic conditions, health professionals and climate and environmental experts.

“Once you identify loops, you identify areas that you can intervene,” Hassan continues. “And those intervention points are what we talk to the community about. It's a lovely way to get the community to think action or get to action points.”

Over the three years of the project, the investigators hope to develop more than just a new tool for measuring climate change impacts that others can use. With close ties to the communities they’re studying, they also want to give them multiple forms of knowledge, both data and ideas, that can empower residents to make change for their communities.

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