Innovative Program Increases Capacity of Scientists, Community Members and Clinicians to make a Difference at USEPA
September 24, 2012
The public is exposed to numerous environmental chemicals, often at levels associated with adverse reproductive and developmental outcomes, such as effects on the developing brain including ADHD and IQ decrements, and childhood obesity. Many of these chronic health effects are increasing in the population. Environmental chemicals have been identified as one potential contributor. Preventing harmful chemical exposures will result in improved health outcomes, and the US Environmental Protection Agency has the regulatory power to make this happen. Yet USEPA’s policy-making is largely disconnected from many key groups, including scientists, community groups, and health care providers. Consequently, key inputs for improved decision-making -- important scientific findings and their health implications -- do not always reach key government decision-makers, while often those with more well-funded access are able to bring their information to bear. The end result is less effective, less health-protective national policies. Reach the Decision Maker’s Fellowship bridges the divide between the decision-makers and those knowledgeable about and affected by its decision, with the ultimate goal of improving decision-making and, ultimately, the public’s health.
Reach the Decision Makers Fellowship (Reach) is an innovative science and policy program that provides a diverse group of participants the skills and support to effectively promote science-based health standards and public health policy at the EPA. Since 2010, the program has trained 75 Fellows from around the country to increase their capacity and that of their organizations to engage in the administrative policy process in order to prevent toxic chemical exposures. Reach focuses on reproductive and developmental health. As the science shows, the periods of preconception, pregnancy and childhood can be the most vulnerable to chemical exposures. Thus, preventing exposures during this time period can improve everyone’s health.
The Reach program provides intensive training, mentorship and ongoing support for fellows to:
- Improve their understanding of the underlying science linking environmental contaminants to reproductive harm;
- Develop skills and tools to effectively engage EPA policy-makers regarding environmental research and state of the science linking environmental contaminants to reproductive health;
- Develop the skills to understand and utilize the best environmental reproductive health science to promote science-based health standards and public health policy;
- Understand the knowledge and information regarding the climate, structure and authority of the EPA, including processes for EPA decision-making;
- Gain the ability to overcome perceived barriers to engaging the EPA; and
- Build and strengthen relationships and partnerships between participants and the EPA staff so participants become a resource to EPA staff and likewise the EPA becomes a resource for participants and their communities.
A key component of the success of the program is the framework on which the curriculum is based, which includes three overarching principles:
- Participatory Democracy: Reach creates a structured path for participants to learn and become agents in the policy making process. They learn how to deepen their involvement beyond simply voting. When participants return to their home communities, they often facilitate others to also become more engaged in the policy process.
- Social Justice: Reach believes that the people who are most affected by social and economic inequities should lead in the development of solutions to address those inequities. This social justice perspective supports the building of a society that fulfills human, civil, cultural and economic rights for all people, and it focuses on structural causes of inequities. Reach recruits fellows who share social justice goals and gives them the tools to achieve those goals through public policy.
- Taking Action to Prevent Harm: Reach believes in science-based policy solutions that value taking action to prevent harm in an efficient and timely manner, even when uncertainties remain.
The experience of one of the first Reach Teams shows the power of the program. The group, made up of two scientists, three community leaders and one clinician (also a member of PSR), identified the need for increasing air monitoring near roadways to provide meaningful data to capture the impact of mobile pollution sources on nearby communities, which are often low-income or communities of color (see: Even on a Clear Day PM 2.5 Lurks). Taking advantage of the EPA rule-making on particulate matter, the team asked the EPA to include a requirement that a portion of air pollution monitors be placed near roadways. Eighteen months later, as a federal court mandated rule-making for a National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter, their request became reality. The proposed rule would require that particulate matter monitors be placed near heavily trafficked roadways in cities with over 1 million people and would include moving over 52 existing monitors to meet the near road requirements.
However, the rule is not yet final and the 2012-213 team will see the rule through. Team members Molly Rauch (formerly of national PSR and now with Mom’s Clean Air Force) and Amit Raysoni, PhD from Emory University, testified on the rule in Philadelphia during the public comment period, as did two members of the original Reach cohort during the EPA hearing in California. To advocate for faster implementation so that data can be gathered more quickly, Molly’s team will meet with the EPA to ask for early adoption while the rule is being finalized. This is just one example of how a committed team of community leaders, scientists and health care providers can make meaningful changes in public policy that ultimately will result in nationwide improvements to health.
Reach fellows have continued their environmental health advocacy and engagement in policy after their fellowship has ended, including participating in EPA advisory committees such as the Children’s Health Protection Committee; submitting comments and testifying during the regulatory process, and presenting EPA research and policy-related work at medical and health professional conferences such as American Public Health Association and American College of Nurse-Midwives. Fellows have expanded the reach of environmental health through publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals, bringing environmental health into their research programs, and funding and writing a resolution for the American Medical Association. Most importantly, REACH fellows have successfully participated in the policy process. Their experience in REACH has brought fresh voices and perspectives to the USEPA and brought the fellow’s communities and their issues closer to the policies that affect them.
Reach is a project of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California, San Francisco. The training model utilized for Reach draws on successful training methods implemented by the Women’s Foundation of California for the Women’s Policy Institute (WPI), which has successfully trained more than 250 nonprofit and community leaders in effective public policy engagement. Reach Director Marj Plumb helped create the WPI and is a consultant with the San Francisco Bay Area PSR Chapter. Check the PRHE website in early 2013 for announcements for future classes.