Q&A: UofL environmental health researcher on leave to serve the White House

Q&A: UofL environmental health researcher on leave to serve the White House

Natasha DeJarnett

Natasha DeJarnett, assistant professor of medicine and researcher with the Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute, is spending a year away from UofL to devote her skills to improving environmental justice for the federal government.

DeJarnett has accepted a one-year fellowship as deputy director for environmental justice data and evaluation for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. The council coordinates the federal government’s efforts to improve, preserve and protect public health and the environment. It also advises the president and develops policies on climate change, environmental justice, federal sustainability, public lands, oceans and wildlife conservation.

DeJarnett is on leave from UofL for the one-year fellowship, but she will be working remotely, so she will remain in Louisville and stay connected with her UofL colleagues.

UofL News talked with DeJarnett about the fellowship and what she hopes to gain from the experience that she can bring back to UofL.

UofL News: What will be your role as deputy director for environmental justice data and evaluation?

DeJarnettThe White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) has created the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool. Version 1.0 was released in November 2022, and we’re continuing to mold it with input from stakeholders across the U.S. and experts in the field. I will continue that process and engage people and experts around the tool. We are also developing an Environmental Justice Scorecard that will track government agencies’ progress on environmental justice.

I’m very excited to see how the information from these environmental justice tools will be used to identify communities across the U.S. that are disadvantaged and thereby uniquely susceptible to the health hazards of climate and environmental exposures, but ultimately how climate and environmental justice investments in these communities will benefit health.

My interest is in advancing environmental health for everyone, particularly the populations that have borne the greatest burden, that have frequently experienced these exposures and communities that may be less resilient to these health threats. I want to help equip those communities and ensure that future actions and activities and efforts to protect health do not leave certain groups behind. If marginalized communities do not benefit from these actions, then injustice continues to perpetuate.

UofL News:  What is environmental justice?

DeJarnett: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies. This goal will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and have equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn and work.

UofL News: What are some examples of environmental injustice?

DeJarnett I have a personal example. I’m from here in Kentucky, but the greater portion of my family is from Birmingham, Alabama, where my parents and my grandparents lived in an area of environmental injustice.

Their community was home to numerous steel mills. Some still are in the neighborhood today. Also, a major interstate runs right through their community, another interstate is south of it, the airport is just south of their neighborhoods, there were hazardous waste sites and so forth. There was documented soil contamination in their community that has been remediated. But the community continues to deal with poor air quality and there are a number of health disparities present – cardiovascular disease, low birth weight and other chronic conditions.

We have similar experiences right here in Louisville in Rubbertown, which at its height, had 11 to 13 chemical manufacturers in a community that’s largely populated by low-wealth individuals and people of color. Another example is in southeastern Louisiana in an area known as cancer alley.

Flint, Michigan’s water crisis and formerly redlined communities that have warmer surface temperatures, poorer air quality and are more flood prone are other examples.

You have places where there are large industrial exposures, hazardous waste sites or other environmental toxins that people are being exposed to and we often find that those happen to certain segments of our population. It could be on tribal lands; it could be communities of low wealth.

UofL News: What do you hope to contribute to the council’s mission?

DeJarnett: My interest overall is to contribute to the advancement of environmental justice for the advancement of public health. I am super excited that I may be able to contribute to actions, activities, resources and tools that could contribute to improved health across our nation, particularly for communities that bear a heavier burden and that have higher risk.

I hope to be able to make a difference for communities like that of my family in Birmingham and Rubbertown here in Louisville, in Mossville, Louisiana and all across the nation. These and other communities have not always been given a voice in their exposure to environmental burdens and are not able to – nor should they have to – just up and move.

We all deserve clean air to breathe, we all deserve safe water to drink, and I hope to contribute to activities that support upholding those rights.

UofL News: What in your previous experience makes this a perfect position for you?

DeJarnett: At UofL, I was doing research on climate change and health and was looking at extreme heat exposure and cardiovascular disease risk as well as poor air quality and cardiovascular disease risk. In addition, I was examining environmental health disparities.

Before I came to UofL, I worked at two national nonprofits, the American Public Health Association and the National Environmental Health Association. There I did a lot of work building partnerships and facilitating opportunities for multiple people to weigh in with their expertise and contribute to an end product.

I have appreciated opportunities to build consensus among national leaders and to identify emerging trends and share environmental health resources.

In this role I’ll need to work between agencies and be able to put on multiple hats and speak to multiple audiences. I love opportunities to try to meet people where they are, find what we have in common, what values we share and how can we move from there with shared vision.

UofL News: How will this experience be helpful to you and the mission of the Envirome Institute once you return to UofL?

DeJarnett: I will get a national picture of the current state of environmental justice research and data that exists and a deeper understanding of the gaps in knowledge in environmental health and environmental injustice across the U.S. This will help me understand where academic research may be able to fill those gaps.

In addition, this opportunity will expose me to environmental justice data tools that our communities can utilize to inform local action.

Our center is committed to human health, to improving, advancing and protecting health in our communities. Environmental justice is a key aspect of health in our community. Plus, I’ll get a lot of experience with data and analysis, and that always benefits in environmental epidemiologist.

I love being at the University of Louisville. I love the expansion and direction that’s happening right here within the Envirome Institute, so I’m grateful for the support to have this life-bridging opportunity and to be able to bring that back here.