CHE’s Environmental Health Primary Prevention Training Institute: Goals and Accomplishments

Davis Baltz, MS, and Heather Sarantis, MS
Co-Directors of CHE’s Environmental Health Primary Prevention Training Institute

As we recognize CHE’s tenth anniversary this year, one of CHE’s newer projects to highlight is the training program offered through CHE’s Environmental Health Primary Prevention Training Institute. Launched in 2010, the three-day training program brings CHE’s expertise in science translation to health advocates, policy analysts, educators, and community activists as they work on issues that pertain to specific disease endpoints. Designed primarily for those who have not received advanced scientific training, the goal is to deepen participants’ scientific understanding of environmental links to disease, enabling them better evaluate and articulate the science that underpins their advocacy work so they can be more effective champions for a healthier world.

To date, we have developed three modules that examine the environmental health science of breast cancer, of reproductive health, and of healthy aging across the life span. Using these modules, we have hosted seven trainings, with a total of 104 participants representing a wide range of organizations and backgrounds, such as the West Fresno Health Care Coalition, California Black Women’s Health Project, Asian Community Center of Sacramento, National Council on Aging, US EPA, California Department of Public Health, University of California San Francisco, the Jane Addams Senior Caucus of Chicago, and Dia de La Mujer Latina of Houston.

Feedback from program alumni obtained during comprehensive evaluations indicate that the trainings imparted valuable new information and perspectives, as well as stimulated new directions in participants’ work priorities. For example, one participant published a guide to making everyday choices that reduce exposure to toxic chemicals. Another graduate who is a childbirth educator developed an environmental health curriculum for use in public education programs and her private childbirth practice. An executive director of a breast cancer advocacy organization wrote that “the training provided a valuable perspective as well as the emerging science on breast cancer and the environment, laying an excellent foundation for thinking about the future direction of the field.”

Our next training is scheduled for November 12-15, 2012, and will address reproductive health and links to environmental factors. Given the strong interest we receive and limited space, we put a special emphasis on how applicants hope to integrate the new knowledge into their current work in specific ways. We hope to have a training cadre of health advocates, educators, and health care professionals from a variety of fields. For more information, see www.healthandenvironment.org/ehtraining.

The training objectives include:

  • Healthy fetal and early life development.
  • The impact of chemical exposures, nutrition, the built environment, social stressors and other factors on development early in life and throughout the lifespan.
  • Recognition of the complexity within an ecological model that is relevant across generations.
  • A critique of risk assessment as the standard regulatory approach to determine chemical safety.
  • How to effectively communicate concerns when there is scientific uncertainty.

Karin Russ, who chairs CHE’s Fertility and Reproductive Health Working Group, has reminded us in a recent CHE Newsletter that the scientific literature on environmental links to compromised reproductive health continues to build, including in utero effects that may manifest years later as “adult” diseases.

Consider for example, two recent journal studies published in 2012 as reported by Environmental Health News:

  • A study of female rats exposed to common environmental chemicals in the womb suggests that epigenetic changes to the developing fetus’s eggs can lead to ovarian diseases later in their life. Furthermore, and importantly, the study showed that these changes can be passed on to future generations even though the younger generation animals were not exposed to the chemicals.
  • An Italian study found that infertile couples had much higher levels of the class of industrial chemicals called phthalates in their urine than couples who conceived naturally. Phthalates are widely used in many consumer products and exposure is widespread across the population.

These kind of findings have profound implications for how we understand and respond to environmental hazards and risks. How do we communicate and disseminate to lay audiences the threats to grandchildren who haven’t been born yet? How can we best build momentum for new academic curricula, new organizing strategies, and new policy initiatives that prevent harm before it occurs? This is the aim of CHE’s Environmental Health Primary Prevention Training Institute, and we hope you will share details about the program with your networks.

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