Engaging Communities in Research on Cumulative Risk and Social Stress-Environment Interactions: Lessons Learned from EPA's STAR Program

Environ Justice. 2015 Dec 1;8(6):203-212. doi: 10.1089/env.2015.0025.


Studies have documented cumulative health effects of chemical and nonchemical exposures, particularly chronic environmental and social stressors. Environmental justice groups have advocated for community participation in research that assesses how these interactions contribute to health disparities experienced by low-income and communities of color. In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a request for research applications (RFA), "Understanding the Role of Nonchemical Stressors and Developing Analytic Methods for Cumulative Risk Assessments." Seven research projects were funded to help address this knowledge gap. Each engaged with communities in different ways. We describe the community engagement approaches of the seven research projects, which ranged from outreach through shared leadership/participatory. We then assess the experiences of these programs with respect to the community engagement goals of the RFA. We present insights from these community engagement efforts, including how the grants helped to build or enhance the capacity of community organizations in addition to contributing to the research projects. Our analysis of project proposals, annual grantee reports, and participant observation of these seven projects suggests guidelines for the development of future funding mechanisms and for conducting community-engaged research on cumulative risk involving environmental and social stressors including: 1) providing for flexibility in the mode of community engagement; 2) addressing conflict between research timing and engagement needs, 3) developing approaches for communicating about the uniquely sensitive issues of nonchemical stressors and social risks; and 4) encouraging the evaluation of community engagement efforts.