Combining forces to solve environmental problems

Study brings together disciplines in effort to remedy issues in Houston neighborhood
February 13, 2020

Studies on public health and the environmental qualities affecting it are common. So too are studies involving urban planning and landscaping. What is not nearly as common is combining the two in an effort to reach a solution to factors affecting the health of communities.

In an effort to close that gap and take that next step, researchers from the Texas A&M School of Public Health have combined forces with the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at Texas A&M to develop a plan to aid in solving environmental issues neighborhoods in industrial areas face.

“The vast majority of the time with these landscape plans they don’t work with public health people, they don’t work with people who can take and actually understand environmental quality data,” said Garett Sansom, DrPH, research assistant professor in the School of Public Health.

Sansom, along with Katie Kirsch, graduate student in the School of Public Health, and Gaston Casillias, PhD, a recent graduate of the School of Public Health, served as co-authors on the paper, which was recently published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

For its research, the group studied the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood which is located east of downtown Houston, and with which the group had an existing relationship. It is a low-income neighborhood along the Houston Ship Channel that is plagued with numerous issues including flooding, air pollution and health concerns.

“This is sort of a classic environmental justice community. It is a fence-line community, meaning, there is the neighborhood and then there is a fence and then there is large industry,” Sansom said. “It is in close proximity to dense industry. It is a location that has solvable problems and known problems so we do have a pretty good idea of what the issues, environmentally speaking, are.”

The first steps included meetings with the community as well as community partners, the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS), and representatives from Furr High School and the Houston Independent School District’s Green Ambassadors program, which involves students who visit elementary and middle schools and share information on how to take care of the environment.

During the meetings, individuals brought up the environmental issues that affected their neighborhood. Maps of their neighborhood were laid out and they could circle where the problems such as pooling of standing water were.

Additionally, in an effort to make it easier for community members to document problem areas, an app was created where individuals could take a picture of the area and upload it to the cloud. From there, the research team would geocode it into a sophisticated mapping program.

The team used this information to collect environmental data in the area such as metals in standing water and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the soil. PAHs are a group of more than 100 different chemicals that are formed during the incomplete burning of coal, oil and gas, garbage and other organic substances like tobacco or charbroiled meat.

“There has been this continual push saying, ‘OK, we know what problems are here, now what?’” Sansom said. “We know it is not great, we know the environment is not really what we want it to be and there are definitely issues with potential toxic exposures, especially to the children.”

That is where the collaboration with the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning came into play. Galen Newman, PhD, associate professor and lead author on the paper, created landscape plans of what the area could look like and continued back-and-forth feedback with community members to gage their opinions on what they would like to see.

Newman’s plans provided visuals for the community members of what the area could look like if abandon buildings were removed, improvements were made in the infrastructure, and green space and riparian zones were added.

“We had a known condition and this proposed change that was created with the community. Now we can do a decent job of predicting the reduction in certain types of toxic exposures based upon the changes in the environmental quality,” Sansom said. “That is what is novel about it. We have known conditions, we have the change with the industry and now we can actually predict changes in the improvement of the environmental quality, which is great.”

Sansom and Newman are also teaming with toxicologists at the Texas A&M University Superfund Research Center and the Texas A&M Institute for Sustainable Communities to create a public health landscape tool.

According to Sansom, the tool will be able to predict the short-, medium- and long-term public health outcomes that can be expected if proposed changes such as landscaping, greenspace and walkability are implemented.

“It can be everything from a reduction of ‘X’ percent of obesity or obesity-related illnesses, to a reduction of type 2 diabetes by a certain amount, those kinds of things,” Sansom said. “You have to be forward-thinking and a little more long-term thinking, but we are not talking 200 years, we are talking 30 years.”

Additional authors on the study include: Tianqi Shi, Zhen Yao and Dongying Li, all from the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at Texas A&M University and Jennifer Horney from the Epidemiology Program at the University of Delaware.

— Tim Schnettler

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