SciTober 2020: Breaking the Cycle of Environmental Health Disparities

SciTober Fest 2020 had 5 amazing breakout topics this year, stemming from one of our partner organizations, Break the Cycle of Health Disparities, Inc. BCHD's Break the Cycle of Children’s Environmental Health Disparities Program supports an interdisciplinary set of student-driven research projects that explore the social, economic and environmental factors that adversely affect children’s health and well-being, creatively develop strategies to reverse this situation, and promote improved health and well-being for this group of children. In the process, BCHD cultivates the development of future leaders.

Three topics were presented about the environmental impacts on human health and two about children with disabilities.


Dr Leslie Rubin, a Developmental Pediatrician affiliated with Morehouse School of Medicine and Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, will provide an overview of Breaking the Cycle of Environmental Health Disparities. 

Leslie Rubin MD is a Developmental Pediatrician affiliated with Morehouse School of Medicine and Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Clinically, he specializes in children with Autism, Cerebral Palsy and other developmental disabilities. He is an active part of the Southeast Pediatrics Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU) at Emory University and participates in local, regional, national and international activities relating to children’s environmental health. His focus is on the social, economic, and environmental determinants of health and disability, which includes the impact of climate. In 2004, he started a program called Break the Cycle of Children’s Environmental Health Disparities, which promotes research on the social, economic and environmental determinants of health and cultivates leadership for the future among university students from across the country and around the world. To date there have been 15 annual conferences with more than 150 papers published in 12 journal supplements and compiled into 12 books on Public Health.

The Environmental Impact on Human Health

The environment that we live in affects our health and well-being. For those that live in poverty, an unhealthy environment can contribute to being trapped in a cycle of poverty. For example: bad air quality is correlated with increased chronic illnesses; being out sick leads to poor performance in work or school; poor performance leads to an inability to get ahead; this leads to living in unhealthy environments; and the cycle continues.

The effects of this vicious cycle have been highlighted by the COVID-19 epidemic. Chronic health conditions, which are more prevalent in those residing in environmentally-poor living conditions, have caused a disproportionate number of people of color to die from Covid-19 (on top of unequal access to healthcare and testing).

While there are so many things that need fixing right now, the journey of a 1000 miles begins with one step, and there are several positive things we can all do, right now, to create change and build good habits that are healthy for us, our communities, AND the earth.

The chart at right shows how much more or less likely a person is to die of Covid-19 based in their race and state.

This year has been overwhelming and while there are so many things that need fixing right now, the journey of a 1000 miles begins with one step. There are several positive things we can all do, right now, to create change and build good habits that are healthy for us, our communities, AND the earth. And they are not complex.


Reducing Your Exposure to Environmental Chemicals

Dr. Dana Barr

80% of chronic disease is due to external factors (diet, stress, chemicals) – that disproportionally effect minority and marginalized populations. Healthy activities need to be coupled with hazardous chemical removal. Learn how Dr Barr’s research works to understand exposure effects and how to mitigate exposure.

Dr. Dana Boyd Barr is a Professor of Exposure Science and Environmental Health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, Department of Environmental Health.  Dr. Barr’s research focuses on maternal-child health particularly involving prenatal exposures to environmental chemicals.  She has established a birth cohort of farmworker women in Thailand evaluating neurodevelopmental delays in their children.  In addition, she is part of an NIEHS/EPA Children’s Environmental Health Center at Emory that evaluates the interactions between environmental exposures, the microbiome and the metabolome in an Atlanta area African American cohort.  Dr. Barr is also studying exposures to indoor air pollution from biomass burning cookstoves in Rwanda, Peru, Guatemala and India.   She directs the analytical chemistry cores of Emory’s NIH-funded Health and Exposome Research Center (HERCULES) and their Children’s Health Exposure Assessment Resource (CHEAR).  Prior to joining Emory in 2010, Dr. Barr was employed at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 23 years where she devoted much of her time to the development of methods for assessing human exposure to a variety of environmental toxicants including current-use pesticides, phthalates, organochlorine chemicals (pesticides and PCBs), phytoestrogens, diethylene glycol, methyl eugenol, vinyl chloride and others.  Dr. Barr has authored or coauthored over 300 peer-reviewed publications and book chapters.  She is a past President of the International Society of Exposure Science (ISES) and the former Editor- in-Chief of ISES’flagship journal, Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology.  She is currently Deputy Editor of Environmental Health Perspectives, the elite journal in environmental health.  As a result of her research, Dr. Barr has received many awards including ISES’s Daisy Award for Outstanding Investigator, two HHS Secretary’s awards for exposure-health investigations involving diethylene glycol and methyl parathion poisoning, the 2004 Federal Scientific Employee of the Year, CDC’s Mackel Award for outstanding collaboration among epidemiology and laboratory, and EPA’s Silver Medal for outstanding service to environmental health.  In 2014, 2015 and 2016, she was designated by Thomson-Reuters as a Highly Cited Scientist in environment/ecology representing the top 1% of scientists in her field.  Dr. Barr received her BS in Biology from Brenau University in 1987 and her Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from Georgia State University in 1994. 

Environmental Influences on Health Disparities

Dr. Julie Herbstman

The Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH) has been following mother-child pairs pre-birth to adulthood for over 20 years. Millions of data points have been amassed around the influence of the environment on health. Learn how Dr. Herbstrman’s research has identified risk factors and appropriate mitigations.

Dr. Julie Herbstman, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences and the Director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH). Trained as an epidemiologist, Dr. Herbstman’s research focuses on the impact of prenatal and early life exposures to endocrine-disrupting environmental pollutants, including polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), environmental phenols (including BPA), perflourinated compounds and phthalates and their impact on child health and neurodevelopment. She has also been involved in research exploring the long-term environmental health impact of exposure to pollutants from the collapse of the WorldTradeCenteron9/11. She leads multiple longitudinal birth cohorts within the CCCEH. She directs the Center's work involving the integration of epigenetic biomarkers to explore the mechanistic pathway between prenatal exposures and disease risk in childhood and across the lifecourse. Dr. Herbstman has been honored as a Columbia Butler Aging Center Fellow and a Columbia Tow Research Scholar. 

Communitology: Environmental Approach to Health Disparities

Dr. Cappy Collins

Medicine treats diseases and symptoms. Health justice focuses on mitigating external factors that generate these diseases. Communitology promotes justice through programming that builds on community assets and reduces chronic stress. Learn about two of Dr Collins’s successful programs.

Cappy Collins, MD, MPH has a background in digital media design, followed by medical training at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, pediatrics residency at the University of Rochester, and a fellowship in children's environmental health at Mount Sinai.  His professional interest in community health led to the development of the non-profit, Nullary Care, Inc. Programming includes Cyclopedia (, a bicycle program that combines physical activity with online documentation to empower urban adolescents and reduce chronic stress; and Cada Paso (, a family-based walking program to promote physical activity, social networking, and health resource utilization.   


He is co-founder of the New York State Pediatric Advocacy Coalition ( dedicated to promoting child health advocacy training, supporting successful child advocacy programs, and providing a statewide legislative voice. He teaches in the Master of Public Health program at Mount Sinai and is Director of the Long Island Centers of Excellence in Children's Environmental Health, part of the statewide network.

Take Action

While the causes are many, there are simple steps all of us can take to provide for a healthier environment. Below we provide things that everyone can do.

  1. Complete the census and vote: distribution of resources requires accurate representation.
  2. Add a capful of vinegar or baking soda (but not both – vinegar and baking soda together make the ‘volcano’ science experiment) to ~ 1 quart of water and soak your vegetables/fruits for about 5 minutes prior to preparing them. This will reduce the amount of pesticide residues on the produce and is as effective as purchasing organic produce (but without the pricetag!).
  3. Healthy habits are easier with a community. And communities can effect lasting change. Walking around densely populated neighborhoods was a mechanism for success with Cada Paso. The barrier to entry was low (walk outside your apartment) and the reward was high (socialize with people, go to local businesses). Brainstorm ideas with your work-out buddy, book club, social group, bible study, bus-stop parents, etc. to get people moving and build community. Remember low effort and high reward are key.


Involving yourself in your community and the local legislative process are ways to effect lasting change.

Write your legislator and encourage increased oversight in environmental chemicals, especially clearer labels on cleaning products that everyone uses (cleaning products, air filters, cooking surfaces) and environmental quality requirements for tenants (i.e. amount of mold, lead, chemicals, pesticides that can be in the air and paint of leased apartments and homes).

Materials to Distribute

Distribution materials about topics that everyone can take action on and are listed here: and include removing BPA from your life, green cleaning, healthier indoor air, toxic-free shopping choices, eating fresh, reducing stress, and creating change.

Increasing your understanding of Children with genetic disorders, chronic diseases, or disabilities

Due to advances in health care and increased care services, children with disabilities and rare genetic disorders are now living longer and more complete lives. To receive the best care and create the best conditions for their children to thrive, families have to navigate a complex labyrinth of services and departments.

As children with disabilities and disorders are more present in the community and in classrooms, it is important to remember that they have a right to be seen as “people first” and to be treated with respect and dignity. Poor treatment ranges from outright discrimination to well-meaning “help” that causes more harm than good.

Increased understanding of services available and the needs of children is something all of us can do to create a more welcoming environment.

At SciTober Fest we are highlighting two topics around children with disabilities and rare genetic disorders.

Understanding Young Children with Disabilities and their Families

Dr. Peggy A. Gallagher

Children with disabilities receive services in-home and/or through school. A focus is on proper care, but also involving children in everyday activities. Learn from Dr. Gallagher about academic research surrounding and services provided to children and their families.

Dr. Peggy Gallagher, Professor Emerita, Early Childhood Special Education at Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA, USA has over 30 years experience in the field of Early Childhood Special Education, both as a classroom teacher and as a University faculty member. Dr. Gallagher directed Project SCEIS (Skilled Credentialed Early Interventionists) for 15 years at Georgia State University. SCEIs, a collaborative of Georgia universities, developed and oversaw the training of early intervention personnel and families in Georgia’s Babies Can’t Wait Part C Early Intervention program for infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families, as well as the parent educator program which hired family members of young children with disabilities to help work with new families.

Her research interests are in families of children with disabilities, inclusion for young children with disabilities, and personnel preparation in special education. Specific to families, Dr. Gallagher has published a book (in its 3rd edition) on siblings of children with special needs. She has published over 60 articles in refereed journals and served on the Board of Reviewers for 6 journals.

Dr. Gallagher is involved in special education at the international level as well. She has been an active member of the European Teacher Education Network (ETEN) and is the past Director of International Programs for the College of Education at Ga. State University. Dr. Gallagher has recently presented her research on families and early intervention in Turkey, China, Hong Kong, and India and completed a Fulbright Senior Specialist project writing a curriculum to train special education teachers in Sri Lanka. In the Fall of 2018, she completed a Fulbright assignment in Mongolia, training assistant teachers to include children with autism in their classrooms.

Rare genetic disorders: Solutions for navigating healthcare challenges

Dr. Kathryn Oliver 

It is estimated that roughly 25-30 million Americans are living with a rare disease. Progress has been made in the diagnosis and treatment of a variety of these conditions, but access to many of the interventions developed remains challenging. Dr. Oliver will discuss these topics as they relate to cystic fibrosis – a rare disorder that her daughter was born with, which also serves as the focus of her research at Emory.

Dr. Kathryn Oliver is a postdoctoral scientist at Emory University in the Department of Pediatrics and possesses 10+ years experience in biomedical research. She completed a B.S. (Zoology) and M.S. (Microbiology) at Auburn University, followed by Ph.D. (Genetics) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her current work focuses on understanding molecular mechanisms that contribute to cystic fibrosis (CF) disease progression, as well as developing more effective therapeutic interventions for people born with rare forms of this condition. Dr. Oliver has published more than 20 peer-reviewed articles and abstracts, garnered over $1 million in research support from the National Institutes of Health and Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and was featured in the September 2020 edition of the Emory CF Research Center's newsletter. Dr. Oliver also has a 9 year old daughter living with CF, and thus has navigated many aspects of the U.S. healthcare system in search of treatment options for her child.


Advocating for increased funding and understanding of the importance of inclusive settings for all young children. Advocacy programs include the following:

  1. Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students (GEEARS;
  2. Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL;
  3. Division for Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children (DEC;
  4. National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC;