UNM College of Pharmacy

The University of New Mexico is one of five universities selected to establish centers for excellence that will focus on environmental health disparities research.

The UNM College of Pharmacy has been awarded a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), on top of $3.5 million awarded last fall by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to launch its Center for Native American Health Equity Research, or Native EH Equity.

The additional $1.5 million will help to support investigations on how contact with metal mixtures from abandoned mines affects rural Native American populations through exposures in drinking water and other local resources that are part of their traditional lifestyle and culture.

The two federal agencies are providing more than $25 million to the universities of New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California, along with Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University, to conduct multidisciplinary research with local communities on how to improve environmental conditions for vulnerable populations.

Environmental health problems are more likely to occur in communities that have ongoing exposure to multiple sources of pollution. The centers will focus on understanding the relationships between biological, chemical, environmental and social factors in such communities.

“Exposures to harmful contaminants in low-income communities are an ongoing problem in our country,” says Michael Slimak, director of EPA’s Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program. “With the support of these centers of excellence, EPA is working to address this issue and protect human health.”

“For the first time, researchers will address – across multiple tribes – disparities in social determinants of health, and tribal cultural and traditional practices,” says Johnnye Lewis, PhD, director of the UNM College of Pharmacy’s Community Environmental Health Program. “Our UNM center will be developing evidence-based risk reduction and prevention strategies to reduce the effects of environmental disparities on Native American health.”

Lewis and UNM Associate Professor Melissa Gonzales, PhD, are leading the Native EH Equity research team, which includes community members, scientists and tribal staff from the Navajo Nation, Crow Nation and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, with support from Pacific Northwest Coast tribes (Micah and Nisqually).

The new centers, funded by five-year grants, are an expansion of a successful pilot program originally started by EPA and the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities. EPA’s contribution to this research partnership will be $7.5 million, with $18 million from three NIH institutes.