In recent years, researchers have strengthened their focus on the issues of environmental justice, which addresses the disproportionate and negative impacts of environmental exposures on individuals from certain racial, ethnic, and minority groups. These groups have historically been excluded from environmental health research studies, therefore it is essential to develop a better understanding of the disparities minoritized individuals face to provide innovative and timely solutions for equitable protection of their health.
About the NCCU-RTI Center for Applied Research In Environmental Sciences (CARES)
Building on the longstanding strategic partnership between RTI International and NC Central University, the new NCCU-RTI Center for Applied Research in Environmental Sciences (CARES) was established in 2022 to support Environmental Justice efforts. CARES leverages the strengths of the two institutions to establish research collaborations and laboratory training in environmental modeling, cell based toxicology, image analysis and other research tools with a unique focus on health disparities and environmental justice.
We sat down with research scientists James Harrington and Wanda Bodnar to talk about how CARES is addressing environmental injustices and helping communities across North Carolina.
Q: What is environmental justice and why is it important?
The EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights (OEJECR) defines environmental justice as the fair treatment and involvement of all people for implementing and enforcing environmental laws, policies, and regulation. This means that individuals, regardless of race, color, national origin, and income, are to be treated fairly and equally under environmental policy. No one should experience negative environmental impacts at a disproportionate rate.
Working towards environmental justice is important to rectify the history of environmental injustices experienced by minoritized individuals and communities. Environmental injustice can be anything from living near an industrial area with poor air quality to the lack of access to safe drinking water, with the common theme being that the impacted individuals didn’t have a say in the processes that resulted in the poor conditions and generally don’t have the resources to fight against the situation. These injustices consequently produce negative health effects and shorter life expectancies in the impacted communities. For example, studies have shown that individuals, specifically children, living with air pollution disparities have a higher risk of developing asthma, lung cancer, respiratory problems, heart diseases, immune system defects, and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. Studies have also shown that predominately Black communities and low-income communities often have higher levels of exposure to air pollution than predominately White communities.
Despite government agencies and administrations becoming more aware of and working to address environmental injustices, the problem persists. This is one of many reasons why our team partnered with NCCU to study and provide timely solutions and about existing environmental injustices.
Tell us about the partnership between RTI and NCCU
We’ve had a long relationship with NCCU through research projects and the university collaborations office and a shared devotion to improving environmental health. As time passed, we realized that our two organizations had complementary skills and specialties that would allow us to perform more impactful research together than we could do individually. A formal partnership would provide synergies in basic and applied research that could be done in collaboration with historically under-resourced communities in our own backyard, empowering residents to have some agency over the environment in which they live.
When our directors, Dr. Keith Levine and Dr. Deepak Kumar began to discuss what form this partnership could take, the idea of a joint laboratory for research and training seemed like a natural fit. The mission of the university to perform state-of-the-art research and prepare students to make an impact after graduation aligns well with RTI’s commitment to training and mentoring our future workforce and our vision of delivering science-based solutions to the world’s most critical problems. RTI has a deep bench of thought leaders in environmental exposure, laboratory analysis, and environmental justice analyses and state-of-the-art instrumentation, and NCCU has community connections and experience with biochemical measurements in cellular models that can give insight into the toxic effects of chemicals, so the complementary strengths held great potential to address big challenges in our communities.
Over time, our Analytical Science Division and NCCU’s Biomedical and Biotechnology Research Institute designed and stocked a space on RTI’s campus to study environmental exposures that disproportionately impact Black and Hispanic communities, with an emphasis on communities close to home. In May of 2022, we officially opened the shared lab space. It's the first part of the center where NCCU students can come to work directly with RTI researchers on joint research projects to understand the biological effects of exposure to chemicals in the environment using cellular models for toxicological research and non-targeted chemical analysis, which are advanced research tools that will prepare students to enter the modern environmental health work force.