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Inferential challenges when assessing racial/ethnic health disparities in environmental research


Numerous epidemiologic studies have documented environmental health disparities according to race/ethnicity (R/E) to inform targeted interventions aimed at reducing these disparities. Yet, the use of R/E under the potential outcomes framework implies numerous underlying assumptions for epidemiologic studies that are often not carefully considered in environmental health research. In this commentary, we describe the current state of thinking about the interpretation of R/E variables in etiologic studies. We then discuss how such variables are commonly used in environmental epidemiology. We observed three main uses for R/E: i) as a confounder, ii) as an effect measure modifier and iii) as the main exposure of interest either through descriptive analysis or under a causal framework. We identified some common methodological concerns in each case and provided some practical solutions. The use of R/E in observational studies requires particular cautions in terms of formal interpretation and this commentary aims at providing a practical resource for future studies assessing racial/ethnic health disparities in environmental research.

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