Ecological and Human Health in Rural Communities
Ecological and Human Health in Rural Communities (EHHRC) partners work to understand the relationships between social arrangements and ecological systems in order to advance the well-being of rural communities.
A world in which human flourishing is supported by thriving ecological communities.
Despite widespread recognition of health inequities and considerable evidence linking human activities to ecological health, very little research directly links human health and ecological integrity in rural environments. Building on existing interdisciplinary strengths in engineering, geography, cultural studies, and public health, researchers are pursuing urgent unanswered questions regarding the linkages between humans’ well-being and the conditions of the broader ecologies and social structures they inhabit in rural areas.
Education, research, and engagement activities will focus initially on Central Appalachia, simultaneously known for its unique ecological richness and dramatic landscapes, as well as intensifying health disparities that cannot be fully explained by socio-behavioral factors. As the initiative grows, activities will expand to rural communities worldwide, potentially collaborating with Virginia Tech's ongoing initiatives and investments in India, China, Malawi, and Ecuador.
Our specific research questions include:
- Are ecological health indicators, such as species diversity, predictors of human health in nearby communities, and vice versa?
- How do long-term exposures to different combinations of environmental contaminants, combined with structural inequalities, affect human and ecological health?
- How can researchers and educators connect with communities to inform and support their decision-making, and strengthen the opportunity for residents to influence research priorities, policy, and education?
According to the National Healthcare Quality & Disparities Report (2017):
- Life expectancy for U.S. residents decreases as the level increases.
- The causes of death contributing most to lower life expectancy in rural areas include: heart disease, unintentional injuries, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, stroke, suicide, and diabetes.
"Morality rates due to colorectal cancer, lung cancer, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are significantly elevated in Central Appalachia as compared to the United States as a whole and cannot be explained by socio-behavioral factors alone."
- Krometis et al, "Environmental Health Concerns and Disparities in the Central Appalachain Region of the United States," Reviews on Environmental Health (2017)
The EHHRC team envisions a curriculum that builds upon at least three new Pathways minors: Pathways to Sustainability, Civic Agriculture and Food Systems, and Appalachian Cultures and Environments. We seek resources to support courses that promote citizen science and community-engaged learning across the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.
Our program leverages Virginia Tech’s renown in science and engineering, its growing public health stature, its increasing number of international partnerships, and its geographic location in order to attract students to pursue studies at the intersection of ecological, societal, and human health within the College of Natural Resources and Environment, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and College of Engineering, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.
The EHHRC team emerged in part in response to Appalachian community members’ requests to know more about the relationship between environmental exposures and the health of their extended families and social networks. Successfully meeting the EHHRC goals requires our engagement with local knowledge and experience via multi-directional community dialogue and community based participatory action research.
PILOT STUDY: TAZEWELL COUNTY, VA
How does environmental landscape change shape community and ecological health in the Central Appalachian coalfields?
In Summer 2016, concept team members collected oral histories centered around land use, environment and health from 14 Tazewell County residents. The researchers combined the oral histories with land use and land cover data to identify critical time points and development activities where changes in the local environment were most likely to impact ecological and human health.
The project demonstrated the synergistic value of collecting local and experiential knowledge via oral histories in conjunction with remote sensing data analysis to assist in more fully interpreting environmental monitoring and health records.
Fish & Wildlife Conservation
Myers-Lawson School of Construction
College of Liberal Arts & Human Sciences
Civil and Environmental Engineering
Religion and Culture,
Research Assistant Professor
Network Dynamics & Simulation Laboratory
Faculty of Health Sciences, Neuroscience
Population Health Sciences
Water Resources Research Center
Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences