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Children's Health Protection

Health Disparities Workshop Objectives and Overview

Healthy People 2010 has made the elimination of health disparities, the gap in morbidity and mortality between social groups (e.g., racial/ethnic minorities and low-income populations), a top national priority. Current research suggests that health disparities are produced by both environmental (e.g., physical, chemical, biological agents to which individuals are exposed in a multitude of settings, including home, school and workplace) and social forces (e.g., individual and community level characteristics such as socio-economic status, education, psychosocial stress, coping resources and support systems, residential factors, cultural variables, and institutional and political forces such as racism and classism). Moreover, environmental justice advocates have encouraged scientists and regulators to view the "environment" holistically, by considering the effects that socio-economic and other social factors have on exposure to environmental hazards and resulting health outcomes. Achieving this national health goal will require interventions that address both social and environmental factors.

A wide range of activities from various sectors of U.S. society have attempted to address inequality in exposures to environmental hazards and resulting health outcomes, including: federally funded research programs on environmental hazards; initiatives to increase citizen involvement in environmental decisions; and community-based efforts to address local concerns about environmental hazards. However, it is difficult to evaluate the success of these efforts, especially with regards to eliminating the disparities between minority/disadvantaged and majority communities. This is because the tools from which to understand and assess disparities have not been fully developed.

Researchers in the fields of environmental health science, epidemiology, and the social sciences have advanced their methods and the technology to improve assessments of environmental exposures and the measurement social processes that shape health disparities. However, these diverse methodological traditions are seldom integrated in a way that elucidates the complex relationships between the socioeconomic and environmental factors that drive racial and social inequalities in health. By convening a diverse group of environmental health scientists, epidemiologists, social scientists, and public health practitioners, this workshop seeks to initiate such inter-disciplinary theoretical and methodological thinking on the question of environmental health disparities.

A primary goal of the workshop is to develop a scientific foundation to explore the conceptual issues, data needs, and policy applications with regard to the social and environmental factors used to measure and track racial, ethnic and class disparities in environmental health. Workshop presentations and discussions will focus on answering the following questions:

  1. Theoretical Frameworks - How do existing theoretical or conceptual frameworks integrate social and environmental conditions to address disparities in environmental health?
  2. Current Knowledge - What is the current state of scientific knowledge on the connections/interactions between social factors, environmental conditions/exposures and health?
  3. Factor Identification - What are the key social and environmental factors to evaluate in considering environmentally produced health disparities?
  4. Data and Methodology Needs - What data and methods are needed to assess the impact of social and environmental factors on health at the national and local levels?
  5. Policy Applications - How can we develop indicators and methods that could guide regulations and policies at regulatory agencies, and that also serve as useful tools for public health practitioners and communities in their efforts to develop policies and programs that reduce health disparities?

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