NewPublicHealth Q&A: Florence Fulk and Tami Thomas-Burton on the Impact of the Environment on Health

Sep 25, 2013, 1:25 PM

A misty scene of trees and sky.

Florence Fulk, MS, BS, a research biologist with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Tami Thomas-Burton, BS, MPH, of the Office of the Regional Administrator-Environmental Justice at EPA, will be speaking at the National Health Impact Assessment meeting this week on HIAs and environmental policy. NewPublicHealth caught up with Fulk and Thomas-Burton ahead of the conference to ask about EPA’s use of health impact assessments.

NewPublicHealth: What steps has the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) taken with respect to health impact assessments?

Florence Fulk: Within EPA is the Office of Research and Development, and within that office we have a Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program which is providing tools, models and approaches to support HIAs across the country. We’re also demonstrating HIA as an approach to integrate and weigh tradeoff in community decision making.

NPH: Why is the EPA investing in health impact assessments?

Fulk: The primary vision for the Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program is to inform and empower communities to look at human health, economic and environmental factors in their decision making, and to do it in a way that fosters community sustainability. And that vision is very closely linked to the values and the function of HIAs. The number of HIAs that are being conducted in the United States and the number of people that are conducting HIAs in the United States has formed this growing community of practice, which can inform our Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program by understanding the decisions that communities are facing and how they’re bringing health, economic and environmental information to the process.

We also see that by growing a community of practice as a network to disseminate EPA tools, models, data and guidance, the research that we do to support HIAs also gives us a way to raise awareness about sustainable alternatives in community decisions.

Tami Thomas-Burton, BS, MPH, of the Office of the Regional Administrator-Environmental Justice at EPA Tami Thomas-Burton, BS, MPH, of the Office of the Regional Administrator-Environmental Justice at EPA

NPH: What are some examples of HIAs being conducted or funded by EPA?

Tami Thomas-Burton: This is the first time the EPA is leading a health impact assessment and we’re really excited about that within the agency. We have two projects right now. One is in Atlanta, Georgia, and the other one is in Springfield, Massachusetts. Both of the health impact assessments are in the assessment phase of the process. In Atlanta the HIA is on a green infrastructure project where we’re trying to bring revitalization to a community and also address some flooding concerns. The Springfield project is a school renovation in an environmental justice community of concern, as is Atlanta.

NPH: What do you hope that people will learn about the EPA at the HIA meeting this week that they didn’t know before?

Fulk: We’ll be presenting on several different areas at the meeting. One is about a health impact assessment by the Office of Research and Development and our presentation is on the view from the collaborative nature. We have a number of stakeholders, a number of different federal agencies and community organizations. I think attendees will see it as a great model of collaboration. We’ll also be talking about the many benefits of green infrastructure approaches such as solving water issues, as well as other direct and indirect benefits. And we’ll also be showcasing three of EPA’s Office of Research and Development’s web-based tools that will be free and open to the public that will provide a lot of information to support health impact assessments at the community level.

Thomas-Burton: And just one thing to add is that we have another session where we will be talking about EPA’s interaction with the National Prevention Council and the National Prevention Strategy.  We’re going to talk about our commitment to the National Prevention Strategy action plan. Facilitating health impact assessments is one of EPA’s commitments. We promised, in the action plan, to conduct research and produce data and methods and approaches and provide individuals, communities and tribes with user-friendly tools.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.