Building healthy communities through science
The UC Davis Environmental Health Sciences Center (EHSC) strives to bridge the gap between science and health. Our mission seems simple enough: To advance a better understanding of how the environment influences disease and disability so people can reduce their exposure to chemicals and toxins.
But transforming what we know about the environment into change can be a challenge. That’s because the work we do in the lab needs to connect meaningfully with the communities we aim to help. It’s a harder road but a more strategic and worthwhile one.
Working with communities to solve environmental health problems can lead to innovations and greater rigor in science, too. And this kind of community-based science ensures what we learn transforms into policies and public health action. These in turn lessen the social burden of environmental health problems, from autism, diabetes and asthma to cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
EHSC’s Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee is made up of community groups concerned with water and air quality, environmental justice and pesticide exposure. This community-scientist partnership helps shape the kind of real-world research EHSC supports and funds through groundbreaking projects. A few examples of these community-based projects include:
- Investigating the effect water quality has to understand its impact on human reproduction
- Analyzing the economic cost of pesticide-related intellectual disability
- Studying the health impacts of air pollution near the Salton Sea
EHSC scientists also are doing pioneering work, for example, discovering how good nutrition can reduce the risk for autism and other types of brain dysfunction. Our researchers were first to identify how genes can influence the impact of nutrition, and that maternal nutrition is a potent buffer against the toxic chemicals that can lead to autism.
They also discovered that the environment changes how genes associated with autism express themselves during pregnancy. This glimpse in utero could someday help identify the condition earlier than what’s possible today, forever changing life’s possibilities for a child with autism.
EHSC is uniquely positioned to help with California’s Climate Change Program as the state confronts increased wildfires, drought and heat due to the impactful shift in the Earth’s temperature. EHSC-led climate projects include:
- Surveying survivors for health problems related to the 2017 North Bay wildfires
- Researching the impact urban wildfires have during pregnancy
- Analyzing ash and debris from urban wildfires
The environmental change communities need, particularly when they’re disproportionately burdened with environmental exposures, can seem overwhelming. But working at the community level around environmental health problems inspires change at the top too, which can quicken our pace toward action.
One such initiative is Project TENDR (Targeting Environmental Neuro-Development Risks), a coalition of environmental scientists, health professionals and children’s and environmental advocacy organizations working together to protect kids from the harm chemicals and other environmental hazards pose.
Project TENDR’s consensus statement calls on regulators and scientists to upend the way chemicals are assessed, including the failure to establish safety thresholds for many of them. Project TENDR draws together a critical mass to help lead change at the policy level, not least of which is the adoption of its lead recommendations by the American Medical Association.
Individually, these might all seem like small steps but together they move us prodigiously toward a single goal: To leave the Earth a healthier place so future generations can enjoy it and thrive.
Irva Hertz-Picciotto, PhD
Director, Environmental Health Sciences Center