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Going beyond the science

How one small community-engaged research project helps build trust

After an accidental toxic air leak from a nearby oil refinery, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community (SITC) was motivated to learn more about their exposure to air toxins.

Drawing on a long-standing relationship with the Oregon State Superfund Research Program, SITC inquired about using silicone wristbands developed at OSU to evaluate their exposure levels.

“After the release happened, no one knew what was in the air at the time,” says CPHHS Assistant Research Professor Diana Rohlman. “This study helped address the question of what was in the air. Even when there is not a release, it addresses what they are being potentially exposed to.”

SITC, Diana, and OSU researchers conducted two rounds of exposure evaluation. Thirty-two non-smoking SITC members wore wristbands for seven days to measure their exposure to 62 different polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

SITC participants also completed daily activity journals that allowed researchers and participants to put their exposure into context, such as proximity to known PAH sources like oil refineries, gasoline or woodstoves.

Results of the study were shared during community meetings, and each participant received a personalized report. “People who were the highest exposed did take some steps to reduce their exposure, which was encouraging because this type of exposure reduction has to be voluntary. You have to want to do it,” says CPHHS Associate Professor Molly Kile. “It made them aware of areas of their life in which they do have the autonomy to control their exposure.”

Molly and Diana say this was a straightforward research and community engagement project and that the true benefit lies in the resulting trust and relationship building between SITC and OSU.

“To be honest, the results from this study were not surprising because there are a lot of sources of PAHs in our environment. So, we expected to be able to detect them,” Molly says. “What is new is this type of personal monitoring study with tribal members as full research partners. Historically, there has been a lot of exploitive science done with Native American tribes, which has led to a lot of distrust of between university-based scientists and tribal communities. So being able to do responsible research and build that university tribal partnership is the most rewarding aspect of this project.”

Molly says it took five years to get to this point with SITC, but through the process they developed mutual understanding and shared trust.

“Native American communities often experience health disparities and it is important to support their sovereign right to determine what issues they want to research and support their decision-making. The only way to do this is to include them as research partners,” Molly says. “This study is just one little pebble in that path.”

Diana agrees and says, “Regardless of who it is, being responsive to community concerns is really important.”

The researchers worked closely with the tribe to develop helpful reports based on their findings. A tribal advisory group reviewed the reports and suggested how the results should be presented.

“The idea of giving data back to study participants is still a relatively new idea,” Diana says. “Anytime you’re working with a community, it’s super important to work with that community in terms of how you should report the data back. You want the data to be useful and understandable.”

And this, Molly says, is the beauty of community-engaged research.

The interdisciplinary team included Diana and Molly of the OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences; Kim Anderson and Michael Barton of the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences; and Jamie Donatuto, Myk Heidt and Larry Campbell of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.

The study as published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The Superfund Research Program is federally funded and administered by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS grant #P42 ES016465), an institute of the National Institutes of Health.