Mapping Environmental Injustice: Disparities in chemical exposures and neurodevelopmental outcomes

July 2, 2024
1:00 pm US Eastern Time

Shylendrahoode, Getty Images Signature; Pixource, Pixabay

One in six children in the U.S. has a developmental disability and the prevalence of those disabilities has increased over the past decade. Families with low incomes and families of color have long faced disproportionate exposures to toxic chemicals and pollutants known to hinder brain development. These inequities stem from histories of discriminatory policies. 

A recently published literature review, initiated by Project TENDR (Targeting Environmental Neuro-Development Risks), sheds light on the disparities in neurodevelopmental outcomes in children in low-income families and communities of color in the United States. The scoping review, which analyzes more than 200 studies conducted between 1974 and 2022, maps existing literature on seven neurotoxicants, including combustion-related air pollution, lead, mercury, pesticides, phthalates, PBDEs, and PCBs. 

“As a result of discriminatory practices and policies, families with low incomes and families of color are currently and historically disproportionately exposed to chemicals without their knowledge or consent where they live, work, play, pray, and learn,” says co-lead author Dr. Devon Payne-Sturges.

As part of the review process, Project TENDR Health Disparities Workgroup members met with community and environmental justice leaders to identify possible areas of collaboration and opportunities for the research to support the work of the environmental justice organizations.

The review underscores the need for action at all levels of government to limit, lower, and eliminate existing pollutants and toxic chemicals in our environments in order to achieve environmental justice and health equity. It calls for stronger workplace protections and an end to siting chemical and plastics manufacturing facilities in/near communities of color and low-income communities.

In this 1.5 hour discussion hosted by CHE Alaska, Dr. Payne-Sturges and Dr. Tanya Khemet Taiwo, the lead authors of the report, will present their findings and recommendations. Dr. Kristie Ellickson will demonstrate a searchable database of studies on disparities in exposures and impacts. ACAT’s Environmental Health and Justice Director Vi Waghiyi will talk about neurodevelopmental disparities and health inequities specifically in Alaska Native children.

Featured Speakers

Kristie Ellickson, PhD is a Kendall Fellow at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Her research focuses on the integration of the elements of cumulative risk and impacts into regulatory analyses and decision making. In her role, Dr. Ellickson builds on past cumulative impacts work from her experience as a state scientist in Minnesota.Prior to joining UCS, while working in air toxics for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, she co-developed a statewide cumulative air pollution risk model, MNRISKS, combing these results with socioeconomic data to investigate disproportionate impacts. Dr. Ellickson also reviewed air toxics dispersion modeling for permitted facilities and led a cross-media team instituted to prevent pollution from crossing from one environmental medium to another in ways that are uncontrolled and unmanaged. Dr. Ellickson is an interdisciplinary scientist and earned a PhD in exposure science from Rutgers University’s Environmental and Occupational Health Science Institute, and a BA in chemistry from Hamline University in St. Paul, MN.

Tanya Khemet Taiwo, LM, CPM, MPH, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the Department of Midwifery at Bastyr University in both the Master of Science in Midwifery and the Master of Arts in Maternal-Child Health Systems programs. She also provides midwifery care on a part-time basis at CommuniCare Health Centers, a Federally Qualified Health Center with clinics in urban and rural communities around the Sacramento area. These clinics are committed to the compassionate care of low-income families in a multidisciplinary setting. Dr. Khemet Taiwo is an epidemiologist whose research examines the role of maternal prenatal stress on child neurodevelopment and how these stressors interact with environmental exposures. She is also a research fellow at The Birth Place Lab at the University of British Columbia, has collaborated on the Giving Voice to Mothers Study, a community-based participatory research project that examines how race, ethnicity and birthplace affect maternity care in the United States. She is a Senior Program Officer for the Birth Justice portfolio at Skyline Foundation, and counts herself blessed as the mother of three beautiful girls who were all born at home.

Devon Payne-Sturges, MEngr, DrPH is an Associate Professor with the Department of Global, Environmental, and Occupational Health at the University of Maryland, School of Public Health. Her initial academic training was in environmental engineering; however, after travels to West Africa where she witnessed clear links between environmental conditions and health, she decided to pursue public health. Dr. Payne-Sturges earned her Master of Public Health and Doctor of Public Health degrees in environmental health sciences from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Prior to joining the faculty at the University of Maryland, she served as Assistant Commissioner for Environmental Health with the Baltimore City Health Department then later as the Assistant Center Director for Human Health with U.S. EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research where she focused on biomonitoring for policy analysis, cumulative risk assessment, health impact assessment, environmental health indicator development, children’s environmental health and environmental health of minority populations.

Vi Pangunnaaq Waghiyi is a Sivuqaq Yupik, Native Village of Savoonga Tribal Citizen, mother, and grandmother. Since 2002, she has worked with ACAT and serves as Environmental Health and Justice Director. She was appointed by President Biden to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC) in April 2021. She is a nationally recognized environmental justice leader and is frequently invited to speak locally, nationally, and internationally. Vi serves as a leader of the Global Indigenous Peoples Caucus that advises the United Nations international delegates for treaties concerning persistent organic pollutants. She served as a member of the Environmental Health Sciences Council that advises the NIEHS.


This webinar will be hosted by the CHE-Alaska Partnership, which is coordinated by Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT). Driven by a core belief in environmental justice, ACAT empowers communities to eliminate exposure to toxics through collaborative research, shared science, education, organizing, and advocacy.