Making the Invisible Visible: Intervening on Cumulative Environmental Neurodevelopmental Risks Using a System Dynamics Approach
Virtual seminar presented by Dr. Devon Payne-Sturges, University of Maryland
Background: The combined effects of multiple environmental toxicants and social stressor exposures are widely recognized as important public health problems, likely contributing to health inequities. However cumulative environmental health risk and impacts have received little attention by US policy makers at state and federal levels to develop comprehensive strategies to reduce these exposures, mitigate cumulative risks and prevent harm. An area for which the inherent limitations of current approaches to cumulative environmental health risk are well illustrated is children’s neurodevelopment which exhibits dynamic complexity, intergenerational effects and interdependent and causally linked nature of multiple factors. Systems science methods enable investigators to examine the dynamic relationships of variables at multiple levels of analysis simultaneously, while also studying the impact of the non-linear behavior of the system as a whole over time. Thus we contend that a systems approach, specifically system dynamics, may be better suited for devising policy solutions to address cumulative effects of multiple chemical, physical, biological and social environmental stressors.
Methods: We convened a 2 1/2-day system dynamics workshop involving experts across multiple disciplines to formally describe the multiple interacting streams of social stressors and environmental neurotoxicants impacting children’s neurodevelopment through the use of qualitative system maps and formal system dynamics simulation models.
Results: An initial system dynamics causal map was developed, incorporating feedback mechanisms relevant to diverse disciplines. Potential high leverage intervention points for reducing disparities in children’s cumulative neurotoxicant exposures and effects were identified. Workshop participants developed deeper levels of understanding about the complexity of cumulative environmental health risks, increased their agreement about underlying causes, and enhanced their capabilities for integrating diverse forms of knowledge about the complex multi-level problem of cumulative chemical and nonchemical exposures.
Conclusion: We conclude that this approach successfully enabled a multidisciplinary group to explore relationships in a complex dynamic system.
Bio: Dr. Devon Payne-Sturges is an Associate Professor with the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health at the University of Maryland, School of Public Health. She also holds a joint appointment in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics. Prior to joining the faculty at the University of Maryland, she served as Assistant Commissioner for Environmental Health with the Baltimore City Health Department, then later as the Assistant Center Director for Human Health with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Center for Environmental Research where she focused on biomonitoring for policy analysis, cumulative risk assessment, health impact assessment, environmental health indicator development, children’s environmental health, and environmental health of minority populations.
Her research focusses on racial and economic disparities in exposures to environmental contaminants and associated health risks with the aim of improving the science our society uses to make decisions about environmental policies that impact the health of communities and populations, especially vulnerable, low-income, and minority populations. She was awarded a NIEHS K01 Career Development award to evaluate the combined effects of ambient air pollution exposures and psychosocial stressors on disparities in children’s neurocognitive functioning using epidemiological and systems science modeling approaches. Additionally, she received a Fulbright Senior Specialist award to work with Hochschule für Gesundheit (HSG) - University of Applied Sciences in Bochum, Germany on cumulative risk assessment and environmental justice. She is energized by the challenge of cumulative environmental health risks and social disparities in environmental health because these issues are difficult, complicated, and sometimes controversial, from both science and policy perspectives. Understanding cumulative effects of multiple risk factors on health is critical for establishing environmental policies that are truly public health protective.