Watershed Moments

The HERCULES Center gives local communities their best weapon against environmental hazards: data

Live Stream: Hercules is assisting the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance with research on the neighborhood around disrupted and polluted Proctor Creek.
Stephen Nowland

Atlanta is known as the city of trees, but underneath its lush green canopy sits an expanse of concrete and asphalt that directs rainwater runoff into low-lying westside neighborhoods. The situation is exacerbated because sections of the area’s natural drainage channel, Proctor Creek, were piped and buried decades ago and houses built on top, leaving storm water with no place to go.

The flooding that occurs when Proctor Creek overflows into the English Avenue and Vine City communities is more than a frequent nuisance; it contributes to serious public health problems.

“We were asked by a number of individuals and civic organizations representing the Proctor Creek watershed to collect basic information about the indoor conditions related to dampness, flooding, and mold,” says Melanie Pearson, codirector of community engagement for Emory’s HERCULES Health and Exposome Research Center. “Mold is known to aggravate respiratory illnesses and may contribute to the development of asthma.”

The four-year-old HERCULES Center studies disease and health in the broad context of the exposome. Similar in concept to the genome, the exposome is a more inclusive definition of environment that embraces air pollution, water quality, and toxic chemicals, but also includes diet, stress, tobacco use, access to health care, and a host of other influences occurring over time.

HERCULES scientists study the complex interaction among the various components of the exposome to more accurately identify potential health risks. At the same time, they are developing the tools, methodologies, and protocols to advance this new approach to public health.

What distinguishes the Proctor Creek Community Collaborative Health Survey from earlier studies is the participation of stakeholders living in the affected areas, according to Pearson.

“Our primary community engagement goal at HERCULES is to support science that addresses specific environmental health concerns in metro Atlanta communities,” she says, “and support community efforts to solve those concerns.”

The project started with Emory students mapping the neighborhoods to identify occupied addresses. A US Environmental Protection Agency map was then used to differentiate between “wet” and “dry” zones.

Next, HERCULES scientists worked with members of the community to develop a questionnaire regarding such issues as residential flooding, respiratory health, household mold, water leaks, air conditioner usage, and pest infestation. The thinking was that while Proctor Creek flooding would seem the logical cause of household dampness and mold, other factors could also be involved.

Two teams, each consisting of a local resident and an Emory graduate student, visited 399 randomly selected homes in the English Avenue and Vine City neighborhoods and completed 150 surveys. The teams also conducted visual inspections for mold and collected samples of household dust for analysis that could reveal microscopic signs of mold derived from water damage.

Among the survey’s findings, 14 percent of respondents reported having asthma, nearly double the rate of Georgians statewide. A third of those with asthma live in homes with visible non-bathroom mold. The survey also found that 35 percent of the homes exhibited mold in rooms other than the bathroom, and in just under half of those homes, the respondent was unaware of the mold. When bathrooms were included, the percentage of homes with observed mold rose to more than half. Musty or moldy odors were detected in nearly a third of the residences.

The dust samples were analyzed by the EPA to determine their Environmental Relative Moldiness Index (ERMI), a measure of water-damage-related mold present in the home. The median ERMI in the Emory Proctor Creek study was ten times the national average.

How the HERCULES data are used is up to the residents themselves, says Pearson.

“Having community involvement from the beginning invites participants to take ownership of the results and encourages community action,” she says. “We’ll still join them when they need a scientific voice, like at City Hall meetings, but it is not our role to lead the advocacy.”

That’s up to people like Tony Torrence. Guided by the Emory data, the longtime English Avenue resident and community advocate for “green infrastructure” says, “We can identify the properties in these low-lying areas that have mold, then go to the property owner and tell them about our plan that might include installing window rain guards, or building a bioswale, or even creating something different like a green roof.”

On a larger scale, the founder and president of the Community Improvement Association has been a force behind transforming vacant lots into neighborhood parks that absorb and filter floodwater while providing much-needed recreational amenities. The first was established two years ago and captures at least three hundred thousand gallons of water within its 1.6 acres, says Torrence. “Our overall goal in the next five years is to have a green infrastructure that can capture 80 million gallons,” Torrence says.

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