Background: From 2006 to 2011, the City of Houston received nearly 200 community complaints about air pollution coming from some metal recycling facilities. The investigation by the Houston Health Department (HHD) found that while operating within legal limits, emissions from facilities that use torch cutting, a technique generating metal aerosols, may increase health risks for neighboring residents. Choosing to use collaborative problem solving over legislative rulemaking, HHD reached out to The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) to further evaluate and develop plans to mitigate, if necessary, health risks associated with metal emissions from these facilities.
Methods: Utilizing a community-based participatory research approach, we constituted a research team from academia, HHD and an air quality advocacy group and a Community Advisory Board (CAB) to draw diverse stakeholders (i.e., frustrated and concerned residents and wary facility managers acting within their legal rights) into an equitable, trusting and respectful space to work together. Next, we investigated metal air pollution and inhalation health risks of adults living near metal recyclers and ascertained community views about environmental health using key informant interviews, focus groups and surveys. Finally, working collaboratively with the CAB, we developed neighborhood-specific public health action plans to address research findings.
Results: After overcoming challenges, the CAB evolved into an effective partnership with greater trust, goodwill, representation and power among members. Working together to translate and share health risk assessment results increased accessibility of the information. These results, coupled to community survey findings, set the groundwork for developing and implementing a stakeholder-informed action plan, which included a voluntary framework to reduce metal emissions in the scrap yard, improved lines of communication and environmental health leadership training. Tangible outcomes of enhanced capacity of our community and governmental partners included trained residents to conduct door-to-door surveys, adaptation of our field training protocol and survey by our community partner and development of a successful HHD program to engage residents to improve environmental health in their neighborhood.
Conclusions: Academic-government-community-industry partnerships can reduce environmental health disparities in underserved neighborhoods near industrial facilities.
Keywords: Academic–government-community-industry partnership; Community advisory board; Community-based participatory research; Environmental justice, Public health action plan; Metal air pollution.