In honor of Earth Day 2010, I thought I would mention a few foundations that have funded environmental health efforts.

While I was at the Grantmakers In Health (GIH) annual meeting in Orlando, Florida, in March 2010, I attended a session titled “Environmental Justice at a Crossroads: From Protest to Sustainability.” Unfortunately, as it was one of the last sessions at this well-attended conference, people had begun to leave, and there was only a small audience to hear about the important topic of environmental health.

Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice

David Fukuzawa, of the Kresge Foundation, was the session’s moderator. The first speaker was Penny Newman, of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ). Newman talked about the origins of the nonprofit, grassroots center and its work in Riverside County, California, which she described as a large county with high levels of poverty. Newman’s biography in the GIH program points out that she “has gained wide recognition” for the center’s “model of engaging those most directly affected by an issue in policy advocacy through community organizing and leadership development.” She and others in the rural community of Glen Avon, California, first became concerned about toxic chemicals being discharged from open ponds at the Stringfellow Acid Pits into their community. The CCAEJ’s Web site describes “the Acid Pits” as “California’s top [federal] Superfund priority site and one of the most notorious toxic dumps in the nation.”

Although Newman and other residents were called “hysterical housewives,” they started organizing because residents’ exposure to chemicals from the site was “a health issue,” she told us at the GIH session. Read about the center’s many accomplishments here. She gave the attendees some advice: If you are working for environmental justice, it’s better to avoid trying to shut down a facility, because that would cause a loss of jobs. Instead, try to improve the facility!

The James Irvine Foundation, Kresge Foundation, California Wellness Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the California Endowment are among the CCAEJ’s funders, Newman told Health Affairs’ GrantWatch Blog. The center now has a staff of eleven.

West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc.

The other speaker at the session was Peggy Shepard, the executive director and cofounder of West Harlem Environmental Action (called WE ACT for Environmental Justice), a grantee of the New York Community Trust. The Harlem section of New York City is a high-density area, with many African Americans and Latinos, she reminded us. According to WE ACT’s Web site, the group is “dedicated to building community power to fight environmental racism and improve environmental health, protection and policy in communities of color.” The group, which began as a group of volunteers but now has a paid staff, first focused its efforts on a sewage treatment plant, Shepard told attendees. WE ACT filed a lawsuit against the city in 1988, which got the city to fix the North River Sewage Treatment Plant and led to a $1.1 million settlement, which was to be used to establish a “fund to address community concerns related to health, environment and service delivery,” WE ACT’s Web site says. Part of the settlement was used to establish WE ACT as a formal “West Harlem planning and advocacy organization.”

WE ACT was also concerned about abandoned cars being left in the neighborhood, as well as the depots for diesel buses located in the vicinity, Shepard said. Twelve years ago, WE ACT began to work with Columbia University’s public health school to research the effects of diesel fumes as well as pesticides, Shepard said. Len McNally of the New York Community Trust, an attendee at the GIH session, noted that Columbia has been “a real partner” in these efforts.

Shepard commented that the public health impact of climate change is important, and her group wants to work on that problem in the future. Most of the health-related legislation in Congress, she maintained, does not address public health. She also commented that it is hard to get funding for community organizing, as some foundations shy away from supporting that.

A few related resources on environmental health:

Health and Environment Funders Network, commonly known as HEFN.

The Heinz Endowments’ Environment ProgramAlso, read a press release about the third Women’s Health & the Environment Conference, which was held just yesterday, 21 April 2010.  The conference was sponsored by Teresa Heinz, the endowments, and Magee Women’s Hospital of UPMC. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson both spoke, Doug Root, a spokesperson for the endowments, confirmed. He also sent the GrantWatch Blog a summary of their remarks.

Benjamin told attendees that her main responsibility as surgeon general is to focus on wellness and prevention, but she is learning, she said, that living up to that responsibility requires much more of a focus on environmental toxins in air, water and food. “In this position, all Americans are my patients and I need to advise them on environmental threats to their health.”

In . . . Jackson’s remarks, she asserted that women, as the chief purchasers of food and most consumer goods in the home, and in their role as caregivers, make up the one group in our society most empowered to insist on regulations that will protect Americans from environmental hazards. She said that outdated regulatory powers given to the EPA, bad court decisions and too much money influencing the process, have jeopardized Americans’ health. She said that women have the power to insist that good science be the sole definer of environmental health policy.

Read a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article written in anticipation of the conference. Teresa Heinz, who is the widow of the late Sen. John Heinz (R-PA) and the wife of Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), chairs the Heinz Endowments.

Physicians for Social Responsibility. Also, read this group’s November 2009 report Coal’s Assault on Human Health. The report was funded by the Energy Foundation and the Compton Foundation.

“W.K. Kellogg Foundation Awards $380,000 to Physicians for Social Responsibility,” 1 March 2010 press release about a grant to launch the Safe and Healthy Children Initiative, which “will address pediatric environmental health in migrant and seasonal farmworker children.”