Disparities and Cancer

July 22, 2020
1:00 pm US Eastern Time

There is a growing body of scientific literature supporting evidence of the disproportionate impacts of exposures to environmental carcinogens in minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. Environmental justice communities tend to live in areas with higher levels of air and water pollutants from sources such as highways or other busy roadways, chemical facilities, and oil and gas refineries, all of which have been associated with increased cancer risk. During this webinar scientists Dr. Christine Ekenga, Anita Desikan, and Caroline Eberle presented their research focused on the disproportionate impact of airborne carcinogens, PFAS contamination, and personal care products specifically marketed to minorities, increasing their risk of developing cancer throughout their lifetime.

To begin this webinar Christine Ekenga, PhD, MPH, presented results from her research on sociodemographic disparities in exposure to airborne carcinogens in the St. Louis, MO-IL metropolitan area. Most studies of disparities in air pollution exposure have been aspatial in nature, often overlooking the influence of local contexts when examining community characteristics. Dr. Ekenga used an innovative geospatial approach to develop spatial measures of sociodemographic segregation and evaluate risk of exposure to airborne carcinogens. Dr. Ekenga  discussed the results of this study and how this work is informing community-engaged approaches to promote environmental health equity.

Anita Desikan, MPH, MS, and colleagues carried out an equity-based analysis on the location of groundwater and surface water contamination across the United States for the industrial chemical PFAS, a widespread chemical class known to heighten the risk of certain cancers. Specifically, Ms. Desikan and colleagues found that the demographic characteristics of communities located within a 5-mile radius of sites with high levels of PFAS contamination disproportionately consist of marginalized groups. While the literature has shown that communities across the US are affected by PFAS, this is the first time as far as authors of this study could tell that it had been shown that underserved communities are disproportionately burdened with exposure to PFAS contamination.

Carolyn Eberle, MPH, reviewed the key findings from her prospective study of self-reported personal hair dye and chemical straightener use and breast cancer risk among participants in the Sister Study. The study explored associations of self-reported product use with consideration for types of dye, and frequency and duration of dye and straightener use with incident breast cancerdiagnosis among more than 46,000 women followed for more than eight years. Analyses stratified by race identified differing patterns of product use and breast cancer risk between black and Non-Hispanic white women.

Featured Speakers

Anita Desikan, MPH, MS, is a research analyst for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In her role, she investigates the role of science in public policy, focusing on topics like scientific integrity at federal agencies, and political interference in the scientific rulemaking process.

Prior to joining UCS, Ms. Desikan served as a research assistant at the Scripps Research Institute, where she researched the effects of alcohol binging on the adolescent mind, and at King’s College London, where she conducted epidemiological research on stroke in a socioeconomically deprived part of London. She also earned a Fulbright scholarship and served as an English teaching assistant in rural Malaysia. She earned an MPH in environmental health and science policy from George Washington University, an MS in biomedical science from Drexel University, and a BA in psychology/biology from Pitzer College.


Carolyn Eberle, MPH, is a doctoral student in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health. Prior to entering the program, contributed to research on racial and ethnic disparities in employment and quality of life outcomes among working age cancer survivors. She received her MPH in Epidemiology from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. At Gillings, Carolyn is supported through the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health’s Occupational Safety and Health Education and Research Center. 



Christine C. Ekenga, PhD, MPH, is an Assistant Professor of Public Health and Faculty Co-Director of Environment and Social Development Initiative at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research focuses on the environmental and occupational determinants of human health and well-being. Dr. Ekenga received her PhD in Environmental Health Sciences from New York University. She uses multiple methods, including field sampling, environmental modeling, biomonitoring, geographic information systems, and qualitative methods to examine how lifestyle, environmental, and occupational factors interact to influence health outcomes. She is the PI of two studies examining the role of environmental and occupational exposures in cancer health disparities. Her current research is funded by the CDC and the NIH.

This webinar was moderated by Karen Wang, PhD, director of CHE. It lasted for 70 minutes and was recorded for our call and webinar archive.