Liz Swanton Cements Partnership Between Center and County

By Liz Swanton

Published on July 8, 2014

A portrait of Liz Swanton of the University of Iowa College of Public Health.
Liz Swanton

Liz Swanton, who graduated in spring 2014 with an MPH degree, has been working “to cement the partnership” between the University of Iowa’s Environmental Health Sciences Research Center and Trempealeau County, Wisc., where the researchers are conducting a demonstration project to evaluate community exposures to respirable crystalline silica using community volunteers.

Swanton described her work on the project in an essay she wrote for the 2014 College of Public Health Board of Advisors Student Award competition. She was named a recipient of the award, and her essay follows:

Air contamination from frac sand mining is a new and increasing concern, not only for researchers, but for also for those living in communities near mines. Frac sand is composed of silica and is a key component in fracking – a process whereby hydraulic pressure is applied to the rock around oil/natural gas wells to enhance extraction. Recent developments in drilling technology have made fracking easier and more economical, thus increasing demand for silica sand. To meet this demand, frac sand mines have recently and rapidly proliferated in many rural Midwestern counties where the sand is plentiful and accessible. The sudden growth of the sand mining industry has raised community concerns about how mining activities affect the environment, human health, and the local economy.

 I am working on a project that is taking an innovative, interdisciplinary approach to environmental data collection which, until now, has been primarily conducted by trained scientists. Incorporating community-based strategies into air quality research, the University of Iowa Environmental Health Sciences Research Center (EHSRC) is attempting to provide communities with the expertise and resources to address their own research questions. After receiving a grant to assess the impact of silica mining operations, the EHSRC was approached by citizen groups and county boards for information and assistance. One particular request came from a community member attempting to coordinate air sampling research in multiple counties in Wisconsin. His contact with the center helped create our partnership with Trempealeau County, WI, where we are conducting a demonstration project to evaluate community exposures to respirable crystalline silica using community volunteers. The materials developed during the project will be disseminated throughout the region, allowing other counties to conduct their own sampling.

My role in this project has been to cement this partnership, to present our project to their board of health, and to prepare the sampling protocols, recruitment materials, and IRB application, with the assistance and scientific expertise of the EHSRC. This process has involved numerous trips to Wisconsin, multiple meetings, and even impromptu discussions with community members (including the owner of the hotel I stayed in). In the next two months, I hope to conduct trainings with our volunteers, provide assistance during the sampling period, revise the protocols and training materials using volunteer input, and develop guidelines on how to interpret and communicate the results to the homeowners where the samples are collected.

This project is community engagement at its best; it is the driven by the community, adapted to fit the resources and needs of the community, informed by community input, conducted by those who live in the community, and ultimately designed to allow additional community groups to independently conduct their own research. It is an equally beneficial partnership. Using volunteers from the counties and incorporating community knowledge expands and improves our own ability to examine the health impact of frac sand mining. For Trempealeau County, this project trains community members and builds local capacity creating sustainable changes in a rural county with limited resources.