Low-income communities of color are inequitably burdened with pollution and its related health effects. (1) Environmental health researchers sometimes conduct community-based participatory research projects in which residents help design research questions, collect data, and interpret results. (2) Such collaboration often improves the academic rigor of these studies (3) and helps inform residents of health risks. (4) But does it actually bring about systemic change to economic, social, and political structures? The authors of a review in Environmental Health Perspectives sought to answer that question. (5)
"I was interviewing community members, and some of their stories just kind of got to me," says Leona Davis, the lead author of the review. A graduate student in environmental education, Davis was helping Monica Ramlrez-Andreotta, an environmental health science professor and one of her advisors at the University of Arizona, evaluate learning and outcomes of a cocreated citizen science program with disadvantaged communities in Arizona. One of these was Hayden, Arizona, a majority Latino town that is home to a copper smelter and piles of mine tailings. (6) Although Davis recognized the residents' environmental science literacy, she was struck by the glaring injustice of their situation. "I just remember ... reflecting that this is a bigger issue than a lack of understanding of science," says Davis.
Davis and Ramlrez-Andreotta reviewed the literature to investigate which specific study design elements prompt structural change to benefit overburdened communities. They found that 26 of the 154 case studies they examined resulted in structural change, which they defined as "affecting macro- or meso-level determinants of health, such as zoning policy, economic policy, political power, built environment, public service provision, or environmental policy enforcement."
Within those successful case studies, they found policy change was rarely a clear win, Davis says. For instance, in one case study, (7) residents were unable to prevent a new waste facility from being built in their neighborhood. Still, they were able to negotiate a reduction in how much waste the facility handled and the removal of...