Ma, Johnson awarded Interdisciplinary Research Leader Grant

Funds will be used to develop community-based health promotion program to improve the air pollution and health status in a historically disadvantaged community in Dallas
October 7, 2020

Texas A&M University School of Public Health professors Ping Ma, PhD, and Natalie Johnson, PhD, recently were awarded an Interdisciplinary Research Leadership Grant, funded by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation. The grant, which is for three years and totals $359,000, will aid researchers and a community leader in their collaborative effort to develop a community-based health promotion program to improve the air pollution and health status, and to re-address the environment injustice in a community in south Dallas. The project was one of 15 selected from more than 100 applications.

Ma is an assistant professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Community Health Sciences, and Johnson is an associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health. The researchers serve as co-principal investigators on the project and are working with Jim Schermbeck, the head of Downwinders at Risk, a leading advocate of clean air in North Texas that was founded in 1994 to defeat the burning of hazardous waste in the Midlothian, Texas, cement plants.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution kills an estimated seven million people worldwide every year, and nine out of 10 people breathe air that exceeds WHO guideline limits for pollutants. The burden of air pollution exposure is not shared equally in the United States, and people of color often face a higher risk of exposure from particle pollution. This is why Texas A&M researchers are partnering with Downwinders at Risk to characterize pollution exposure and examine the links with health.

“Many members of the community have repeatedly advocated for scientific answers to the troubling questions they have about the connection between their health and the air they breathe,” said Misti O’Quinn, Downwinders’ Community Liaison for the Project. “Our intent is to finally provide them.”

The community of Joppa is a historic Freedman’s Town in southern Dallas. It is surrounded by multiple sources of a variety of large air pollutant sources, specifically particulate matter (PM) air pollution. The researchers point to a newly installed monitoring system that shows Joppa has high concentrations of PM and the air quality is worse than most communities in the United States.

“These tiny particles, known as PM, represent a significant ‘unseen’ health risk related to numerous adverse effects like cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, including lung cancer and asthma, as well as effects on infant development and brain health,” Johnson said. “Our real-time pollution monitors will help make this threat ‘seen,’ which will immediately help inform health risks and potential solutions.”

The researchers will also survey and interview community members and key stakeholders to gauge their perceptions and concerns regarding air pollutants in their neighborhood and their preferred solutions to improve air quality.

“After launching a variety of community outreach and research activities, the findings will help assess the severity of air pollution, facilitate understanding of health concerns facing community members, and generate the community-based solutions to inform residents of risks and rights and create new culture of environmental health in Joppa,” Ma said.

“Our team’s ultimate goal is to use the research findings related to pollutants and health outcomes in order to support local policy recommendations that ensure residents can breathe clean air,” Johnson added.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated solely to health and funds a wide array of research initiatives to help address some of America’s most pressing health issues—from substance abuse to improving access to health care.

Schermbeck is the head of Downwinders at Risk and is a community organizer and environmental advocate with more than 20 years of environmental advocacy experience for local communities in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He has expertise in organizing community residents, field advocacy practice, creating environmental justice plan action and prompting the launch of new environment protection policy.

— Tim Schnettler

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