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CCEE graduate students chosen to speak at conference focused on children’s environmental health disparities

CCEE students Banks Grubbs and Timothy Leung were selected to speak at the 18th annual Break the Cycle of Children’s Environmental Health Disparities conference at Emory University in Atlanta on April 17 and 18. The program focuses on raising awareness of children’s health disparities and on cultivating future leaders among university students nationally and internationally.

“I am very honored to be presenting some of my research at a program conference that has been ongoing for 18 years now,” Leung said. 

“I felt honored that my work was considered significant enough to stand next to the many impressive and impactful projects that this program has produced,” Grubbs said. “I was also excited to meet the other trainees and learn from them and their incredible research.”

The theme of this year’s conference was children from Indigenous communities, who represent approximately 30% of all children in poverty and are at greater risk for exposure to environmental hazards. 

“One of the great benefits of academia-based programs is the ability to learn about the research that other students across the world are performing and apply some of that knowledge to my own work,” Leung said. “Since this program is focused on raising awareness of children’s environmental health disparities, I think it is a very important responsibility for students such as myself to be leaders in finding those hidden upstream factors that influence the health and wellbeing of children. While mitigating the effects of harmful exposures is a clear option to helping these populations, eliminating — or reducing — the sources of these exposures is a much better alternative for longer-lasting effects that could help children across many generations.”

Banks Grubbs

Grubbs, an environmental engineering master’s student advised by CCEE Head Jackie MacDonald Gibson, discussed the role of race in access to public water and sewer service in Halifax County, North Carolina, at the conference. He said that their research has found that in extraterritorial jurisdictions (ETJs) in Roanoke Rapids, the largest town in the county, there is a strong and statistically significant negative relationship between the proportion of Black people in a census block and the odds of a house in that block having public water and public sewer.

“In many rural Southern towns, we have seen Black communities be historically excluded from municipal borders and sometimes captured in ETJs,” Grubbs said. “ETJs are designed as a tool for municipalities to designate areas near their borders for future annexation. Within ETJs, municipalities are granted the power to, among other things, make zoning changes and expand public services. However, municipalities are not obligated to provide residents in ETJs with water and sewer services, and there is no limit on how long an ETJ can exist before being annexed. So, we often see many rural Black communities captured within ETJs for long periods of time and denied access to public water and sewer, despite the infrastructure often being close by. Additionally, when people don’t have access to public water and sewer, they often must resort to alternatives such as private wells and septic systems, which are major sources of exposure to various environmental contaminants.”

Grubbs said this kind of research is important because it can help people understand how historic racism and racially biased zoning decisions can affect infrastructure distribution and other aspects of the built environment. 

“This is particularly important for engineers because, when we don’t understand the social and historical context of the communities that our work affects, we may inadvertently perpetuate systemic racism and enable the cycle of children’s environmental health disparities to continue,” he said.

Timothy Leung

Leung, an environmental engineering Ph.D. student advised by MacDonald Gibson, gave a talk about his research on childhood exposure to lead in drinking water, which can lead to nervous system damage, cognitive impairment and behavioral issues later in life. assessing the effects in private well water on educational outcomes among North Carolina children. 

“Dr. MacDonald Gibson and I are measuring the correlation between private well drinking water and academic performance among children,” Leung said. “Private wells are often associated with older homes, unregulated non-public water sources, and old water infrastructure components such as pipes and solder. From past research, we believe that consumption of water from private wells will be associated with increased blood lead levels among children. Factors such as having a private well, home age, household income and ethnicity are all significant predictors of higher blood lead levels among children.” 

Leung said this type of research is important because it sheds a light on the health disparities children may face.

“Conferences such as Break the Cycle are wonderful opportunities to spread our findings with others inside and outside our fields,” he said. “I hope to also learn about other important issues in our society from other program trainees that have varying interests and areas of expertise.”