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Decreasing Pollution Distribution in the Community

April is Citizen Science Month! In this post, graduate student Mandy Dees illustrates the work of Dr. Gabriel Filipelli and how research benefits greatly with partnerships between the community and scientists. This post was written in partnership with Dr. Krista Longtin’s advance science and research communication writing course at IUPUI. –JAS

Lead & daycare playgrounds do not mix! Some daycare playgrounds are in the back yards of Indiana and many don’t realize pollutants may be hiding in the soil. Have no fear, because a citizen science effort in Indianapolis, led by Dr. Gabriel Filippelli, provided free soil testing of many areas throughout the city. Results showed the soil near houses pose significantly greater contact risks of lead exposure than anywhere else on the property. Did you know, greater than 20% of children below seven years old have blood lead levels above the level of concern, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have yet to identify a safe blood lead level in children?

Image of Dr. Gabriel Filipelli
Photo courtesy of Dr. Gabriel Filipelli

Dr. Filippelli, known to many as “Gabe”, lives his life with a focus on helping his fellow human beings. Dr.  Filippelli volunteered in the Peace Corps because the role and responsibility of serving others at the grassroots level really resonated with him. For more than 15 years Dr. Filippelli’s background in geochemistry has provided opportunities to conduct research and publish on biogeochemical cycling in the environment with connections between geochemistry and the geologic record of climate change. Including the opportunity to serve as a Senior Science Advisor for the US State Department. There are many projects he has led, from projects aimed at nutrient cycling in the ocean and on land to assessing the potentially harmful element mercury in the coal resources of Indiana. Dr. Filippelli’s work on examining the links between lead distribution and children’s lead blood levels in urban areas is something all communities can relate to.

Geochemistry & Community 

Urban geochemistry is a branch of general geochemistry (the study of chemical properties of Earth) combined with human activities in concentrated population areas. Dr. Filippelli’s research on urban geochemistry and the metal exposure in urban environments, much like Indy, have revealed how lead and other harmful metal exposure is related to the health and well-being of residents. A sad reality is when it comes to soil contamination, it’s often identified through human exposure and disease, not soil measurements. For example, scientists have to wait until hundreds or sometimes thousands of children getting sick appear on public health records with high blood lead levels before we can use this as a call to action to map the lead footprint. Reflecting on the reality that it takes numerous children appearing on public health records with possible lead poisoning from their environments is truly a harmful and extremely backwards methodology for protecting our communities.  

Community & Science

A few years ago, Dr. Filippelli partnered with community leaders of local youth organizations focused on testing the soil of residential home daycare playgrounds. Not all daycares conduct soil testing, and this was a gap he discussed with the young community leaders. Dr. Filippelli brought the science of lead into conversation and talked about how environmental risks pose a threat to local daycare children. Dr. Filippelli even took the young community leaders to his lab on the Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) campus. Once the community leaders learned children were at risk of lead exposure they jumped into action because they needed to decrease the environmental lead exposure to urban children. These leaders took truckloads of donated mulch to the daycares at residential houses and landscaped the playgrounds with mulch.

Dr. Filippelli says to be successful when working with communities, researchers must show communities how the ‘community & science’ partnership will benefit them. “The exchange must be bilateral and mutually beneficial” 

He reflects on working with the community and believes any relationship with communities is based on trust. Partnering with someone a community trusts is one way to engage with a community. Otherwise, community members may not listen to any message, no matter how important. Being associated with an existing trustworthy entity has been successful for Dr. Filippelli. 

“I wish I knew how rewarding working with the community was…I knew in theory that is was going to be good, but I didn’t realize just how rewarding it was going to be for me.” 

Dr. Filippelli

Protecting your Community

Perhaps the most urgent need for all communities is knowing who to contact if concerned about pollution exposure in the home. IUPUI has an app for Lead Screening in your home, who knew? And the app is free! Click here for a super-quick, free way to find out if you need to request a free Lead Screening Kit.  

The goal of Dr. Filippelli’s partnership with the community is what “lead” him to become the Executive Director of the Environmental Resilience Institute. Follow @GabeFilippelli and while you are at it, why not follow @IUImpact on Twitter. Aren’t we glad Dr. Filippelli continues working to get science into the homes of our Indiana communities?

Dr. Filipelli holding the award for the Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute from the Indiana govenor.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Filipelli

FYI: Dr. Filippelli and his team with the Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute received Indiana’s most prestigious environmental award, the Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence, for work with Indiana communities in September 2021. 

Read more about his latest amazing work here.

Edited by Jennifer Shutter, Indiana University School of Medicine.

About the Author
  • Image of Mandy Dees
    Mandy Dees

    Mandy Dees, PhD Nursing Student who is also passionate about helping fellow human beings. Mandy is the Manager for Clinical Professional Development at IU Health University Hospital and a part time PhD student. With more than 24 year’s nursing experience in the clinical setting, she is focused on assisting patients and their families navigate difficult conversations in adult intensive care environments.

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