“For more than two decades,” Annie Hoang writes, “my mother has worked in poorly ventilated nail salons where she inhales toxic fumes that have caused new health issues. Similarly, my father works as a low-wage laborer in an old warehouse where smoke and dust pollute the air.”
Hoang is an MD candidate at the University of California at San Francisco, and she’s also a fellow in the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice program. The Agents of Change fellowship aims to cultivate a new generation of environmental justice leaders who, like Hoang, are from communities that have long been excluded from leadership roles in science, academia, and public health.
A key focus of the program is encouraging fellows to make scientific information more accessible to historically marginalized communities, using communication pathways that extend beyond traditional academic journals. Fellows are encouraged to develop podcasts and write essays, like Hoang’s, that highlight the deeply personal harms of environmental injustice and reimagine solutions for a just, healthy planet.
On March 8th, current fellows from the Agents of Change program shared their perspectives on what it’s like to work at the intersection of environmental justice and toxic chemicals in a webinar called “Multisectoral perspectives on the intersection of toxics, health, and environmental justice.” Alongside Hoang, three current fellows and fellowship assistant director Max Aung discussed why it’s important to address toxic chemicals in vulnerable communities, the necessity of an interdisciplinary approach to environmental justice, and the value of clear, accessible science communication.
Lariah Edwards, PhD, a postdoctoral scientist working jointly at the George Washington School of Public Health and the Environmental Defense Fund, described the importance of a multisectoral, collaborative approach when working with toxic chemicals in vulnerable communities—truly equitable solutions require a quartet of research, policy, practice, and communication strategies. Michelle Gin, MPH, an Environmental Health Supervisor for Community Outreach and Engagement in Minnesota’s department of public health, shared her experience in working with frontline communities around safe disposal of hazardous waste. Theresa Guillette, PhD, discussed her work with PFAS “forever chemicals” and the need for effective remediation strategies. And Hoang, a medical student who also holds a master’s in public health, explored the challenges of working with toxic chemical exposure from a clinician’s perspective.
Fellows also discussed how their experience in Agents of Change might influence their future career plans. Each of them expressed that the program had bolstered their confidence in the importance of their own voices and helped them refine powerful science communication skills.
Hoang’s essay concludes with an intimate call to action for society to do better by environmental justice communities: “As a medical and health professional, and daughter of low-wage laborers, I believe that we all deserve to live our healthiest lives whether at home, work, or place of play. Health, after all, is a human right.”