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Measuring the Success of Community Science: The Northern California Household Exposure Study

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Background: Environmental health research involving community participation has increased substantially since the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) environmental justice and community-based participatory research (CBPR) partnerships began in the mid-1990s. The goals of these partnerships are to inform and empower better decisions about exposures, foster trust, and generate scientific knowledge to reduce environmental health disparities in low-income, minority communities. Peer-reviewed publication and clinical health outcomes alone are inadequate criteria to judge the success of projects in meeting these goals; therefore, new strategies for evaluating success are needed.

Objectives: We reviewed the methods used to evaluate our project, “Linking Breast Cancer Advocacy and Environmental Justice,” to help identify successful CBPR methods and to assist other teams in documenting effectiveness. Although our project precedes the development of the NIEHS Evaluation Metrics Manual, a schema to evaluate the success of projects funded through the Partnerships in Environmental Public Health (PEPH), our work reported here illustrates the record keeping and self-reflection anticipated in NIEHS’s PEPH.

Discussion: Evaluation strategies should assess how CBPR partnerships meet the goals of all partners. Our partnership, which included two strong community-based organizations, produced a team that helped all partners gain organizational capacity. Environmental sampling in homes and reporting the results of that effort had community education and constituency-building benefits. Scientific results contributed to a court decision that required cumulative impact assessment for an oil refinery and to new policies for chemicals used in consumer products. All partners leveraged additional funding to extend their work.

Conclusions: An appropriate evaluation strategy can demonstrate how CBPR projects can advance science, support community empowerment, increase environmental health literacy, and generate individual and policy action to protect health.

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