Improving Health Outcomes at the Community Level: Chemical Risk Assessment Methods in Light of Lessons Learned with COVID-19

December 8, 2020
1:00 pm US Eastern Time


This webinar is part of a series organized by CHE and the Boston University Superfund Research Program (BUSRP). Learn more about the CHE-BUSRP Partnership.

Disproportionate COVID-19 disease rates in people of color and ethnic minorities have highlighted the need to address the underlying factors, many of which have been perpetuated in our approach to health risk assessment. Wendy Heiger-Bernays, PhD, Molly Kile, ScD, and Sydelle N. Harrison, MPH, discussed the current EPA risk assessment methodology which lacks consideration of background hazardous exposures and “underlying health conditions” afflicting large segments of the population as well as the lack of cross-cultural perspectives.  Beginning with a brief description of the current approach to risk assessment, they outlined and defined the gaps that need to be filled in order to protect vulnerable, environmental justice communities.  They then focused on a Tribal Nation experience, where speakers share important considerations in the calculations of risk as well as the Tribal perspective of “health” – the two elements that come together and often clash in the traditional EPA risk assessment. 

Featured Speakers

Wendy Heiger-Bernays, PhD, is a clinical professor in the Department of Environmental Health at the BU School of Public Health where she applies her training in molecular toxicology to practical questions about the impact of industrial chemicals, consumer products and pharmaceuticals in water and waste streams on people’s health. Her career objective is to decrease health risks to impacted populations from exposures to environmental stressors. Dr. Heiger-Bernays is PI of the Research Translation Core (RTC) for the NIEHS-supported BU Superfund Program. Her work focuses on technology and information transfer of the science to multiple audiences, including environmental regulatory and health agencies as well as with advocacy groups and community groups. Heiger-Bernays’ overall objective is to engage communities in their understanding and mitigation of environmental health risks. She currently serves as a member of the Massachusetts DEP Waste Site Advisory Committee and the Science Advisory Board for the Toxics Use Reduction Institute and is Chair of her local board of health. In 2015-2016, she was a AAAS Science and Technology Fellow hosted in the Office of Science Coordination and Policy at the US EPA, working in the Endocrine Disrupting Screening Program. Dr. Heiger-Bernays serves as Vice President of the International Society for Children's Health and Environment.

Molly Kile, ScD, is an environmental epidemiologist focused on understanding the health impacts related to early life exposure to chemical contaminants. She is also interested in identifying social and host factors (e.g. genetics, epigenetics, and microbiome) that can mediate these exposure-response relationships. A large portion of her research involves biomonitoring to assess personal exposure to chemical contaminants at different life stages. In addition to conducting studies that inform risk assessment and environmental policy, She also engage in community-based health research that engages communities in environmental health research in order to identify control measures that are acceptable to the impacted community. Currently, she is working on a prospective birth cohort in Bangladesh examining the effect of early life exposure to metals on children’s health outcomes including reproductive health outcomes, immunological functioning, and neurocognitive behavior. She is also working with Native American Tribes to investigate air quality and chemical contamination in First Foods. She is helping to develop a new study in Oregon that will investigate the association between flame retardant chemical exposure and children’s neurocognitive and behavioral outcomes. Finally, she is helping to develop and assess well water safety programming that will motivate homeowners to mitigate environmental hazards detected in their home’s well water. 

Sydelle N. Harrison, MPH, is interested in research that aim to identify and address gaps in public health translation at the Tribal level in the Pacific Northwest. Her current community-based research focuses on investigation of indigenous environmental health priorities and capacity-building with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR). On campus, she works to understand factors surrounding cultural competency of university researchers working with a Pacific Northwest Tribe. Harrison would like to use a mixed-methods approach in her future work to identify strengths for public health capacity-building within Tribal nations.

This webinar was moderated by Caredwen Foley, MPH Candidate in Environmental Health at the Boston University School of Public Health. She is a communications analyst at the Office of Technical Assistance in the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. This webinar lasted for 60 minutes and was recorded for our call and webinar archive.