Early Career Spotlight: Rutgers University Environmental Health Researcher Showcases the Experiences of Young People in a COVID-19 Pandemic Hotspot
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to dominate our way of life, young people across America have risen to the challenges of a life lived largely indoors and online. Despite communications technologies keeping us more globally connected than ever before, young people have found themselves increasingly physically isolated. The “Stay-At-Home” lockdowns across the United States are the most severe since World War II, leading to unprecedented sights like empty malls, quiet streets in big cities, and empty athletics stadiums.
These lockdowns have significant implications for environmental health research. Many young people (11-30 years old) are not in school and instead face major health challenges in their broader communities, yet most common focus of youth environmental health research focuses only on school settings. Thirty percent of young people were unemployed and 60% of their households lost income during the pandemic. Environmental justice communities
– those with disproportionate pollution burdens and populations with high susceptibility to the health impacts of pollution – fared even worse. As the pandemic behaviors of most young people shifted them into their homes and away from the outdoors, pollution burdens and environmental concerns have shifted. Community pollution burden often motivates youth to engage in environmental health activism, but a knowledge gap has surfaced about how the transition from outdoor to indoor environmental considerations will impact the health and priorities of young people.
It is in this context that, shortly before COVID-19 first spiked, I joined the team at the Rutgers University Center for Environmental Exposures and Disease (CEED) in New Jersey as a postdoctoral fellow. CEED was established through National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences funding with a goal of understanding, detecting, preventing and solving environmental health problems through collaborative research. My community-partnered research mission is to bring more young voices into the pandemic research process, building on my original plan to test the toxicity of vaping products that are popular with young people. As the news of the pandemic spread, I was disappointed with the public health websites for young adults that only covered student experiences and mental health problems linked to isolation. I instead thought of my siblings, friends, and peers who took on many responsibilities to protect their families, serve their communities, and do their jobs during the global shutdown. The young people that I know are navigating virtual learning/teaching, planning community cleanups with their friends, organizing protests against police brutality and racism, lobbying for masks to be provided at the grocery stores and bars where they work, and working overtime in healthcare professions to keep the doors open and patients safe. The youth are far from lazy and irresponsible as they sometimes appear on the news.
When CEED noted a lack of representation of young voices in their pandemic research discussions, we created a session that was included in the Center’s annual summit
“COVID-19, Environmental and Occupational Health and Justice” on September 30, 2020. A set of young presenters from New Jersey community organizations lept at the chance to tell their stories beyond the classroom. The young presenters included Liberty Science Center Partners in Science Interns, 4-H ambassadors, the co-founder of the Newark Water Coalition, the president of a Surfrider Foundation Student Club, the Green Team Youth Leader of Groundwork Elizabeth, and the Program Manager of W.E.B. DuBois Scholars Institute. Speakers shared their pandemic experiences and ideas for investments that can help young people during the recovery from the pandemic in the “Next Normal.” Their actions during the pandemic inspired the audience of 60, which included many health researchers and leaders of New Jersey community organizations. The presenters highlighted key pandemic concerns, including calls for expanding access to mental health care services, a need for safe youth engagement activities, a commitment to only opening with proper safety guidelines in place, concerns about disposable equipment into the natural environment, and the concepts of justice in pandemic services and recovery plans. You can watch the session