environmental justice

LISTEN: Annie Hoang on advocating for safer workplaces

“The simplest science communication you can do is letting communities in.”

Annie Hoang joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss how the U.S. fails workers when it comes to toxic exposures, and how researchers can advocate for safer workplaces.


Hoang, a medical student at the University of California in San Francisco, and former Agents of Change fellow, also talks about her family’s immigration story from Vietnam, the dangers of one particular workplace toxic chemical methylene chloride, and how she’s merged research and advocacy to reach affected communities and policymakers.

The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.

Listen below to our discussion with Hoang, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Transcript

Brian Bienkowski

Today's guest is Annie Hoang, a medical student at the University of San Francisco and former Agents of Change Fellow. Hoang talks about how the US fails workers when it comes to toxic exposures in the workplace. And she walks us through some of her powerful advocacy work on occupational health issues. Enjoy.

All right, I am super excited to be joined by Annie Hoang. Annie, how are you doing today?

Annie Hoang

I'm doing great today. How are you?

Brian Bienkowski

I'm doing excellent. And full disclosure, this is a second time I'm asking you this because we had some technical difficulties. But we are back. And I already know the answer to this. But where are you at today?

Annie Hoang

I am currently in San Francisco, California. Yes.

Brian Bienkowski

Yes, and we talked all about the cost of living a couple minutes ago. But we can brush right past that. It's a beautiful place, and it's expensive, and everybody knows that. And what I really want to talk to you about is your work. And Annie is a current fellow right now. And I want to start at the beginning before we get to some of the work you're doing. And that is, your parents came about during the Vietnam War. I read this in your application. Were denied education and immigrated while pregnant with you to the US in 1991. So I want to start there. That's a really interesting immigration story. And tell me about your upbringing a bit and in what ways your parents’ immigration story and struggles kind of shaped you early on.

Annie Hoang

Yeah, you know, my, the “immigration story,” quote, unquote, for my parents, and my upbringing is definitely a little bit complicated. So my parents, as you mentioned, were born and raised in Vietnam, but both of their fathers, so both of my grandfathers were American soldiers who presumably fought during the Vietnam War. And so both of my grandmothers are Vietnamese, although there's a little bit of wrinkle there, because technically, my dad's mom is of ethnic Chinese ancestry anyways, but for all intents and purposes, both my grandmothers are Vietnamese. And so both of my grandfathers were American soldiers of different races and ethnicities, which is relevant given the systemic racism we have in society. And so my dad's father, so my paternal grandfather was Black, and my mom's dad, so my maternal grandfather was white. And so we all know from the Vietnam War, how that ended. And that, I guess, both of my grandfathers at some point during their stay in Vietnam, essentially, abandoned my grandmothers and the children that they had together. And so both my parents were raised by single mothers in Vietnam, which was and is, I wouldn't say taboo, but in any, anywhere you are, being a single parent is just very, very difficult. Especially a single parent, or in this case, a single mom, in a society that I will say that is not amenable, or understanding of how you got there in the first place. And so not only did, you know, I came to reflect and really kind of understood that, as I've gotten older really understood the gravity of what they did, because not only did my grandmothers have to figure out how to raise their children alone with with essentially very little help, because they're essentially pariahs of society at this point. And both sides of my family from my, my grandmother side, they came from poor families and like my, my mom's mom, for example, was a rice farmer, for example, and she had to work all sorts of odd jobs to kind of make a living. And so not only that, they have to figure out how to raise their children in that type of socio-economic situation, but they were raising mixed race children, which was an issue in a communist country. And so, and essentially probably one of the worst things that you can probably do to yourself at that time. Because now your seen as traitors, you know, taking care of spawns of the enemies. And as a result, they were, my grandmothers were essentially forced into hiding a little bit. They had to kind of go into the jungle in the woods just to kind of find a safe space to raise their children. And my parents were, frankly, denied the human like, essential human rights, like the human right to an education. They, they were kept out of schools, because of how they worked, I'm sorry, because of how they looked, and their physical features. And so the more mixed race you looked, the less opportunities you would get. And so my dad would tell me how, you know, he would start working at the age of six and seven years old, to try to support his mom and his brother, how he would kind of sneak to peer from the windows inside the schoolhouse, just to see what the teachers are like, teaching the other kids in his spare time, because he wasn't allowed to be in there. Both my parents never got past the first grade. And it was very arbitrary. Because my mom's sister, for example, my aunt, she was able to get to the eighth grade, but that's because she didn't look as mixed objectively. And so my, my grandma, my grandmother for for my mom, and my aunt, for example, had to adapt. They had to dye their hair to try to make them look less noticeable. Wear, you know, loose clothing, just any, any way that you can be as low key as you can in society. So I'll stop there, because I think I kind of rambled a little bit. But that's a little bit of kind of that particular of my parents’ upbringing.

Brian Bienkowski

Yeah, no, you didn't ramble at all. And it's, it's a fascinating, it's a fascinating story, a heartbreaking, but it's a fascinating story. And I've talked to a few fellows on here, I think we all kind of have an internal search for identity, I don't think that's something that stops at any point, at least not for most of us. And I'm wondering kind of how you disentangled a lot of this history and different aspects of who you are and where you came from, in kind of finding your own identity, or maybe you're still doing that.

Annie Hoang

I feel like it's always a lifelong process. But it's something that, I guess let's put it this way. So, as you as you mentioned, my parents “immigrated,” I'm going to put that in air quotes to the United States in 1991, under what is called the Amerasian Homecoming Act, which was essentially an act from Congress where somebody had a conscience, and then provided preferential immigration status to children in Vietnam, who were born of US servicemen. And the criteria was how mixed you looked. It was based on physical features alone, which is crazy, if you think about it. And so, there was, so you know, I mentioned that because the features that made my parents marginalized, in quote, unquote, their motherland, was kind of like an, a key to a new beginning and opportunity in their fatherland. And sorry, my voice is breaking up a little bit. But so my parents resettled to New Jersey, and that's where I was born and raised. I've always been a Jersey girl. So that's definitely one of my identities through and through. And they came here with the legal status of being refugees, and kind of what that entails, to this day, my parents only have a green card. They're permanent residents of the United States. They're technically stateless. They don't have a passport to Vietnam, they don't have a passport to the United States, they don't have citizenship, technically anywhere. And since I was born in the United States, I'm technically an American citizen. And I've always considered myself as a first generation American. But I've also always kind of questioned that identity a little bit because it's a little bit weird to say, your first generation something that you should have been all along. And just seeing how arbitrary that is to be considered coming from an immigrant family when technically they were American all along. So that that's just a weird space to be in. And so you kind of straddle, a little bit, two worlds. But yeah, and you know, when, you know, my parents still live in New Jersey. They came, I grew up in urban poverty. I grew up in poverty, we lived in a poor household. My parents to this day don't really speak English, like they would be considered what you call limited English proficiency. And as a result, my first language wasn't even English. My first language is actually Vietnamese and so I started school, and when I started grammar school I was in ESL classes for a few years because I didn't grew up speaking the language.

Brian Bienkowski

I can hear the Jersey in you now, a little bit, now that you mentioned it, there's a couple words. There's just a couple words in there that I, yeah, now I get it. No, that's okay. I get, I get the Canadian accent even though I'm not from Canada, but I live in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. So I think, I say things like “take the dog out,” you know, stuff like that. So there's, I have, I have been told that as well. So we all have our we all have our quirks, but I like it. I like that Jersey accent. So what was it? What was it in this upbringing in Jersey, that that got you interested in environmental health? Because that's where you're at now. So where did that, where did that come into play?

Annie Hoang

Yeah, so that is also a little bit convoluted. But although in my brain, it makes linear sense to me. I wouldn't change it any other way. So I, at first, in a previous life was super interested in like global health and reproductive, reproductive justice. That was kind of my jam. So I went to Yale for college. And there, I was a molecular biology major. So I always had that kind of basic science hat. And I did a lot of work on virology and immunology and the common cold virus, not the coronavirus, just the rhinovirus, to just get some perspective for current day events. And, but when I was in college, I was really into the idea of being gung-ho for women's health and reproductive justice and really global health as a, as a whole, and did a lot of work in that space. I also did like a fellowship in public policy and international affairs. And so I knew that interfacing was, with policy was going to be a theme for me somehow. And so kind of pass, fast forward like four to six years, I took some time off between college and, and med school. And so, when I started med school, I still came in with that passion for wanting to do something in the global health sphere wanting to do something in the reproductive justice sphere, mainly also because I had a clinical interest in becoming an OB/GYN at the time. And so I took like a global health class in med school as well, to kind of supplement my, my other, my global health experiences, and I, my school is really big on research and inquiry and scholarly projects. And so they created like a speed dating event to find research mentors. And I kind of anchored on what the OB GYN department was presenting where whatever they were presenting, I was there. And what resonated with me the most was a presentation by, you will come to appreciate, the program on reproductive health and the environment or PRHE, which I'm pretty sure is an institution that you're well aware, given the speakers you've had on the podcast, and I believe Dr. Ami Zota has done some training there. But they did a presentation on methylene chloride and toxic chemical exposure and policy. And I listened to the presentation, I was like that, yep, that one, that one. There was something about it that resonated with me so much about what they said. And thinking about my values and why I came into medicine. I was like, yep, this is, this is what I want to spend some time working on and learning more about. And I will have to say I had a lot of, I don't want to call them misconceptions about environmental health. But I had some opinions. Because at first I thought the people who were in environmental health were white people who were tree huggers that were out of touch with reality of the struggles of real working class people. So that was definitely my perception. I obviously couldn't be more wrong. And through this particular experience, it was kind of a snowball effect, then all of a sudden, I was meeting people in the environmental health world and just learning more about what it entailed, the language. I think a lot of it was learning the language, to be honest, and the vocabulary of this field. My school, again, heavy, heavy emphasis on research, made us take like a two week intensive course on whatever we wanted. And I took one on climate change and health, and did a deep dive on that, for instance. And reflecting and introspecting and kind about my values, and, you know, why I was interested in global health in the first place, just kind of pulling it full circle, is that at the end of the day, you know, I came into medicine and public health because I, you know, based on my upbringing and my lived experience, I want to make the built environment healthier for everyone to live, work, age, play, and to raise our children in. And I felt that this particular field just really encompasses that so beautifully.

Brian Bienkowski

Yeah, and I want to talk about some of that work, but there's, there's one question I've been asking everybody, and I want to ask you before we move on. And that is, what is a defining moment that shaped your identity? It's a big question.

Annie Hoang

Yeah. Are you gonna share yours? Like,

Brian Bienkowski

Oh, boy, you know, no one's asked me that.

Annie Hoang

That's what I want to know, I want to know what shaped your identity, ahh!

Brian Bienkowski

I’m woefully unprepared, but I can quick, I can think real quick, you're the first one to turn it around. A defining moment that shaped my identity. You know, when I was in college, just after college, I worked at a factory. So I was cutting steel, purchasing steel for a factory, which is very different than what I do now. And I was kind of I, I was lost to some extent, because I went to a big public university, Michigan State University and hung out with my friends and partied and did all that and got my degree, and then you went to work. And I was lost, my friends were gone. And I would just, I got this book, The “50 hikes in Michigan,” and every weekend, I would just drive to a new place and hike alone. And I fell in love with kind of the natural world and biodiversity. And, and kind of what it made me feel like, which was a sense of peace, of calm, of interest in kind of the ecology I was surrounded in, and realized I want to, in some way work in an environmental capacity, because my undergraduate degree wasn't in that. So I don't think that's really a moment, it's probably not a great one. But this it kind of made me fall in love with the outdoors and how it made me feel. And years later, I realized there was an environmental journalism focus at Michigan State University, a master's degree. And then of course, once I started doing that, instead of being the white tree hugger, environmental type that you, that you mentioned, I realized that so much of environmental reporting, deals with people and people's exposures and people's vulnerabilities to things like climate change and water quality. So it really switched from, you know, reporting about trees and water to about people and impacts. So, yeah, well, thank you for asking me. That was, I guess that's a mine, and I was not ready for that. So how about you?

Annie Hoang

Yeah, I will have to say, I, me and the natural world. Mmmhmm, we do not, we're not friends. Like I do, I never really hiked until I moved out here to the West Coast, because apparently everyone hikes out here. And I, like the idea that you have to drive for hours to walk up a hill for another few more hours, dehydrating yourself, you can't go to the bathroom. And if you do, it's just not pleasant. Like, this just makes no sense to me. Or like camping or anything. I've never gone camping, it's never going to happen. My partner wants me to do it, maybe some glamping. But that's how I feel about the natural world. Anyways.

Brian Bienkowski

So your moment, your event or moment is not, not the same as mine.

Annie Hoang

Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no. But I guess, I don't know if it's the most defining moment, but it's probably one of the most resonating moments in my life was, I want to say I was maybe around 10-ish, plus minus. And I forgot what the conversation was about, but I was talking to my dad. And maybe it was about my grades, report cards or something like that. But he said something. My dad is a very straight shooter by like, he's just he just says how it is. He is not one of those, like, he's not one of those parents that are like, “Oh, you're so beautiful, you can do anything in the world, the world is your oyster.” No, no, no, he's a bit of a realist. And he's like, the world is a hard place, and you need to get your stuff together. And so that's him, as a primer. And so what he said to me, and I'll never forget this, he says, I'm obviously not translating from Vietnamese, but he says something along the lines of like, you need to invest in your brain, you need to invest in your mind, and you need to invest in your education. Because that's how you're going to be able to survive in this world. That's how you're going to get through life. Because I have a younger brother named Johnny. He's like, You cannot fall back on manual labor, like me and Johnny, you know, at the end of the day, you know, we can carry boxes, we can work these jobs that no one wants to work. You can't do that. And he's he, you can't do that, because, he basically said that because I was a woman. But the idea is like, I'm a very small petite woman, he was just thinking about the realities of the world. And so, and so my dad has always kind of emphasized the importance of investing in myself, in my education. And so he's always instilled that in me, through this lens of this kind of realistic lens of the world is a very hard place and you simply don't have as many opportunities as some of us have, that we can fall back on. And so I thought that was a very resonating, it was kind of like a real talk from dad essentially. And, and yeah, that's stuck with me ever since.

Brian Bienkowski

That reminds me, I was listening to a podcast the other day about cycling. I'm a cyclist. And they're, a woman was asked what was the biggest difference between—a lot of racing is in Europe, or I think she was from Poland or Slavic country—and in the US. And she said, Well, the parents in the US, they all seem to say “you can do anything you want, you will be great at anything.” And she said, when I was growing up, my parents said, “You are not good at that. You need to find something you're good at. Or get better at that thing, because you're not good right now.” I thought it was interesting, given, given that, yeah, how we, we tell people they can do everything. And I think there's probably benefits to both to both of those.

Annie Hoang

So my dad is, that's definitely his parenting style. Yeah.

Brian Bienkowski

In the latter camp. So you, you in passing mentioned methylene chloride, when you were listening to the talk from when you were at the speed dating event. And you went on to, so you studied toxic exposures at the workplace and in homes. And I want to start with some of your work on methylene chloride, tell us what this chemical is, why it's harmful and who is being exposed?

Annie Hoang

Yeah, so where do I start? So methylene chloride, or it's also called dichloromethane. It's a toxic chemical, it's a halogenated solvent for any nerds out there. It's, it's an odorless, it's not odorless, it's a, it has a sweet odor. Its vapors are heavier than air. And it's something that you find in a lot of products that are sold, that, that were sold on the shelves of hardware stores. So things like paint strippers, or paint remover. So if you wanted to refinish your bathtubs, for example, you would use methylene chloride as a prominent ingredients in those products, adhesives, sealants, sprays, it used to be in pesticides, also kind of an inert ingredient. And what makes it significant is that methylene chloride essentially causes this endogenous source of carbon monoxide. So everyone knows carbon monoxide, right? It's bad. It's a poisonous chemical asphyxiate. And methylene chloride is metabolized in the liver and broken down into carbon monoxide. And it does this for hours, you know, for hours on end. And so you're essentially depriving your body slowly of oxygen, when you're introduced to methylene chloride. Now, it also causes early onset heart attacks, and arrhythmias or abnormal heart rhythms in vulnerable individuals. And so it's not uncommon for people to come into the emergency department in full cardiac arrest, because of their exposure of methylene chloride. And of course, in my work, we found that to be the case as well. And so that's kind of the acute effect. So not only are you depriving of your body of oxygen and causing, it also causes respiratory depression and depression of your central nervous system in the same way that you can, you can probably if you know how opioids work and how they depress your drive to breathe well, methylene chloride through its own mechanism kind of does the same thing. So not only does it do that, but the chronic exposure, if you have more low-level exposures, it, the effects are also quite insidious. It's classified as a human carcinogen, as a probable human carcinogen. It's been associated with rare cancers like that of the liver and the gallbladder, lymphomas. And even the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, has even acknowledged and says that, hey, methylene chloride is likely to be carcinogenic to humans by “all routes of exposure,” quote, quote, unquote, for them. And they even said that methylene chloride in the majority of its conditions of use, poses an unreasonable risk to human health. So that's a little bit on methylene chloride there. And so my work involves kind of this, I've been working on this, I guess, for four years. So when I went to that speed dating event, that was literally four years ago now. And basically, I did an investigation of deaths, of fatalities due to this toxic chemical. So just looking at deaths, not not look, not thinking about too much about people just being exposed and sent to the hospital and lived to tell the day, but actually who died. And from that work, I discovered and confirmed about 85 deaths, so with very eerily similar narratives. That was kind of, you know, tough to go through and read, and the majority of them nine tenths of those deaths were just workers trying to just do their job, you know, whether it's cleaning an industrial tank or stripping a bathtub, they died on the job, just just using this toxic chemical. And it's it's one of those chemicals that you can’t just use very safely, you need to use special gloves, that's not just nitrile, you need, you know, OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends using a fully supplied respirator. Not just going to 95, you need something that actually gives you some oxygen, it's vapors are heavier than air. So you can just open the window and call it a day. And so this is just nasty stuff that people, that people use on the job. And people used to be able to get on the hardware store, and just buy off the shelves, as well. So I'll just stop there and see what other questions you have.

Brian Bienkowski

Sure, yeah. And you so you've taken this work. I know you've done some research on it, but you are not just leaving it in papers and reports. You've used it to advocate for people who are being exposed. And I'm wondering if you could tell me about presenting these findings to the EPA, and what you've learned and trying to turn health research into action and solutions for people that are exposed.

Annie Hoang

Yeah, and so yeah, so I've had the opportunity to present this to the EPA, I had a brief call with them just giving, this was a couple of years ago now where we were just getting our preliminary findings and letting them know that. And this is before the, you know, for listeners who don't know, methylene chloride was recently banned in paint strippers, specifically for consumer use, by the end of 2019, the EPA finally phased it out. So you no longer could, you technically can no longer find it on those shelves of hardware stores like your Lowe's, your Home Depot, or Amazon if you buy paint strippers. But you can still find it in other consumer products. So, but during this time before that rule was finalized, you know, we presented our findings, and we said, hey, you know, it's cute and all that you're doing all this stuff for consumers. But wait, we're finding out that workers are dying, and that we need to do something to protect workers. And so that was a conversation we had with them. And they listened to us. At that time, they were thinking about not banning the chemical at all in the workplace. They were thinking about, well, what about more training or something like that or more, more rules in the workplace, even though we've shown that there's been persistent workplace violations, despite OSHA mandates, and OSHA doesn't reach everyone either. And so we were able to speak to them, we gave public comments like written public comments, in their, like in some of their rules, in kind of the rulemaking process. I've given oral comments when they asked for it to the scientific advisory committee, also giving them an update. And so that's, in terms of just trying to turn health research into action, I've learned that there's a lot of consistent engagement that needs to happen in showing them that, hey, this is important. You know, advocacy is all about that consistent engagement. And also, just thinking about advocacy in general, like coalition building, like having multiple disciplines, like show, in this case, you have clinicians doing this work, or doing this research, you know, we're showing that in the house of medicine, this is important. You know, in the environmental health world, this is important. In the human rights world, this is important. And I, and so I think that type of coalition building is important. And then if you think about, you know, I mentioned that methylene chloride is now banned in paint strippers in the consumer setting, and that was due to grassroots organizing. That was due to families, who actually my team got to know personally. And, and we've contributed to that effort by giving them our research, by giving our preliminary results to amicus briefs, for example. So that, that came from grassroots organizing of families and, and people who were, were, who were, who had been exposed to this chemical, along with the nonprofits to really advocate for the banning of this chemical. So I think there there's a lesson to be learned about community organizing and coalition building and also being at the right place at the right time. And kind of the political landscape also affecting as well. So, you know, the rule to ban methylene chloride in all, virtually all settings—that rule was, was proposed on the last day of the Obama administration. And then when the next administration took over, it kind of just went back to the wayside. It's been an uphill battle ever since. So understanding also kind of just the political landscape is also important in terms of advocacy work.

Brian Bienkowski

Yeah, I think the, the notion of collaborations, I think you said coalitions, but you know, collaborating and consistent messaging is so important. I think about that in journalism a lot. When we cover, the first thing that always comes to mind is North Carolina's hog farms, kind of as an environmental injustice story, because it's been a story for 25 years, 30 years. And it's still a story because it has been around for 25-30 years. I mean, that's part of the story, is why isn't anything happening. So it's worth that consistency to still cover that, to still cover the people that are dealing with that, because eventually, the messaging will get through, or other collaborators, other publications will pick up the story and run with it as well, which will get more attention on it. So I think those are two really important points that go beyond science. And this. So this chemical, specifically the chemical you're talking about, I think of workplace exposures, it's almost kind of a class issue, too. I mean, a lot of people turn a blind eye to these toxic exposures in the US, because if, if you were working in an office, and there was a slow leak of something that was linked to all of these health problems, I would imagine they would stop that immediately. They would, they would take people out of that office and make sure they're okay. But these are, you know, labor jobs, these are blue collar jobs, often taken by low-income people, immigrants, you know, people who don't have the opportunity to pursue higher education, so on and so forth. How would you like to see this, this changed? And how can we frame the conversation to bring people together fighting for economic equality, racial equality, and workers’ rights, as the causes you mentioned, they have so much overlap?

Annie Hoang

Yeah, yeah, it's a really charged question. And I'd like to know who these people are, who are turning a blind eye. I’d like to know who they are and, you know, and kind of push them a little bit and ask them, what is it about the topic…is it just certain, like, as you're alluding to, maybe is it just certain jobs that they care, because clearly in an office setting, maybe, you know, at some unnamed tech company, you know, building or whatever, there was a leak, maybe they'd get to it right away. But you know, so, as your question alludes, it is all about framing. And I do believe in the value of kind of appealing to people's kind of existing values, because no one really wants toxic chemicals in their home or their workplace like no one, right? Regardless of whether or not you care about others, like no one really wants it, right. There's a reason why we have a multi-billion dollar industry in the clean beauty world I think it was reasonably valued is like nearly $20 billion. You know, there's a reason why there's like this consumer demand for like, environmentally friendly laundry and dishwashing and shower goods, right. So there's clearly a market for this, there’s a reason why people go to Whole Foods and buy $8, strawberries, organic strawberries, right? What? Why are they doing that? So clearly, people are speaking with their pocketbooks about what they want their built environment to look like. And what we're trying to say is, you know, for, as you said, these more labor jobs, you know, we want the same for them in their workplace, they have families that they go back to, as well. They have children to raise and, and for me, this always takes a little bit of a personal, you know, thinking about my, you know, my interest in environmental justice, you know, my my personal stake in it is like, my parents are working class parents, you know. My mother worked in a nail salon, my mother works in a nail salon, and she's exposed to God knows what, every single day for the past two decades and you see it, you know, as a, as a budding clinician, you see it, you see the weathering on her body. Right. And same thing with my dad, you know, my dad, with his quote about manual labor, you know, he works a manual labor job, he works in a warehouse, where there's, you know, it's like an old, dusty warehouse, and he has a preexisting lung condition, you know, and you also see the weathering of that. And so it's about, you know, seeing the weathering of these cumulative effects on people. And it seems like, you know, you can, you can, you can classify them as whomever and whatever you want and put whatever label you want to, but at the end of the day, for whatever label on them, but these are all people. You know, these are your neighbors. These are the people who you, you meet in life. And so I think, appealing to those values that clearly already exists because people are speaking with their pocketbooks about it, and framing it in a way that maybe is not so charged or you know, that closes the conversation. I think that will go a long way.

Brian Bienkowski

And you've done. So you've done a lot of public facing science communication on this issue and others with communities themselves with policymakers. And I'm wondering if you could talk about tips, you know, what have you learned? What mistakes have you made? What tips would you give for scientists who want to engage in more science communication and advocacy and not just publish in a journal and then leave it be, but you know, use it for action? What are some tips and more curiously, for me, what are some mistakes maybe, that you've learned?

Annie Hoang

You know, I'm always like, I, this is something that I'm still working on. So I would love some tips and some tricks as well. And something I'm looking forward to developing myself and the general advice of this area. But kind of, as I mentioned before, as far as wanting to engage in more science, communication and advocacy, you know, we've already underscored it, we'll do it again, like the idea of coalition building and community engagement, right? It's about going back to the community in which you're trying to serve, that you're trying to uplift, or trying to amplify. At the end of the day, as you mentioned, environmental health and injustice, environmental health and justice, you know, it requires a multi-prong solution. It's a multidisciplinary field. And it really requires kind of a multi-prong approach and kind of a cross-talk amongst disciplines. So I think that is going to be key in terms of just amplifying your own advocacy. And also just kind of expanding your own personal horizons, if you're, you have that thirst for knowledge. You know, it's funny for the past year and a half, like during this pandemic, I guess, going on two years now, when people talk about science and scientists and researchers, you think they're talking about like, some monolithic thing, but it's not, right. It's completely siloed. And no one ever talks to each other. And so I think getting out of that more and more and more, especially in this field is going to be super important. I think, as far as community engagement goes, you know, yeah, we publish in a journal. And hopefully, I mean, publishing is always the hardest part, to be honest. It's very hard to publish in a peer reviewed journal, especially one that you want, that has a high impact. And even before you go in the ‘oh, I need to write an op ed, oh, I need to write a blog post, oh, I need to interface with some media folks.’ All of those, by the way, are important. ‘Oh, you know, I need to be engaged in my Twitter account.’ But even before you do all of that, how about closing the loop with the community that you have to tap into? Right? So the people who had research participants, the people who had to do focus groups and interviews with, with these communities that they're trying to uplift and advocate for? How about closing the loop, and that's probably the simplest science communication that you can do, right, is letting those communities in. They want to see the fruits of your labor, they want to see how, you know, you took on, you know, their, how their emotional labor, how their experience, how their perspectives are reflected in your work, and how what impact that it has. And so I don't see that a lot. I think in research, I think academics do a pretty poor, piss poor job, in kind of closing the loop with the communities that they just tapped into. And I think, I think we've seen I think, in the past two years, the little bit of mistrust and distrust of the scientific community. And I think you, I think that's such a simple way to kind of bridge that, that trust and let them know what contribution that they have. Because you know, they'll have a better taste in their mouth, they're going to, it's going to be a snowball effect, right? The, those communities, they’re going to tell their friends, they're going to tell their families, they're going to go on their social media, right, they're going to go on their Facebook and their Twitter. And so I think continuing to create a relationship with that base is going to be super important. You know, I can give a little small, this is a very small example. But like for my methylene chloride work, for example, I alluded to the fact that we made, we developed a lot of relationships with the widows of the deceased, that we investigated. And so, so when our paper was coming out this year, before anyone else, we, we went back to the families, we went back to those widows and we said, hey, this is this what the finished product is looking like, this is what we're planning to do. You know, and, and, and thanking them and having that communication back with those with the widows and the families and, and letting them know that they were so crucial and that, you know, the deaths of their loved ones will not be in vain. And the response we got from, from those families have been nothing but positive. They've been wishing us all the luck and wishing, you know, I definitely get a lot of wish for, you know, my, my, my career and everything. And so just, just that alone, I feel that relationship building that in itself is super important.

Brian Bienkowski

There's also a form of empowerment there. We did a study with families in fracking country in western Pennsylvania, recently, and when we had our results published, all the sudden these people who have been saying, crying out for help from their policymakers, they had numbers that they could put, “hey, look, what's in my body, look what's in my child's body.” So I also think on top of it just being the right thing to do. I think there's, there's real empowerment there, depending on the research when you give it back to the community and let them own a part of it and use it to advocate for themselves and their community. So it's a really good point. And Annie, I spent so much time talking about methylene chloride, what else are you working on? Tell us a little bit about what you, what you have going on and what you plan to do moving forward.

Annie Hoang

Yeah, I mean, as well as with methylene chloride, I dabbled a lot in like water equity access, the idea that, you know, everyone should have access to good tasting water in a public setting, in the public realm. So they have done a lot of work with communities here. Especially in historically excluded neighborhoods on, on building water hydration stations in the city of San Francisco. I've worked on the, thinking more about, more on toxic chemicals, thinking about green chemistry. And recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic have done a lot of work on air quality in schools and thinking about how do we get our children back to school during the pandemic and making sure that the air quality, given that we have an airborne virus, making sure that schools are a safe space, I've done a lot of work in that. But at the end of the day, I'm also in med school and training to be a clinician, so I'm hoping to go into emergency medicine. And so that's right now the field that I'm currently applying into, and have been putting a lot of my energy in that for now, as well. And so, as far as forward facing, that's what I'm looking, looking forward to. And I forgot to mention as far as your point on, or your previous question on just science, communication and advocacy. It kind of just came to me and engaging with policymakers. I remember kind of in my first year of med school, I had to do like this tour of like City Hall, and we met with like the city officials and the policymakers. And one of the moments that really struck me was the conversation that we had with one of the legislative aides. And she, I remember she was just like, at that time, what she implored us to do was, I'm kind of paraphrasing and quoting her is like for us to get out of the ivory tower. You know, like policymakers, you know, they want to hear from the experts, they want to hear what your science is telling them so that we can that way they can translate it into something that actually will help people. And they want be able to lean on that expertise. But we got to be able to get out of the ivory tower and speak to them. And so I thought I'd mentioned that because I thought that was, that was definitely one of the resonating moments to hear just to hear that. I knew that. But I didn't hear that. You know, I think that just resonated with me and definitely was a huge impetus in me pursuing more like, health policy work.

Brian Bienkowski

Excellent. Well, I have two more questions. And this first one is more of a comment than a question, but your parents have to be so proud and such strong, and such strong people to have endured what by all accounts sounds like an incredibly hard childhood and journey to bring you here, and look where you're at.

Annie Hoang

You would think so, but my mom is like, how are you almost 30 and don't have a job? Like how is this a thing? You would think? I don't know. Like my mom is just like how do you have a job right now, like, I don't get it, you know. And then she'll start naming like, you know, this first cousin this second cousin has a job and they're making more than you, so this is what I have to deal with in real life.

Brian Bienkowski

I love that, that's that's the perfect answer. I tried to be tied to tug at the heartstrings and no, nothing from the parents. Nope, just get your ass a job, basically. I like that. Well, Annie, this has been a whole lot of fun. My last question is what is the last book you read for fun?

Annie Hoang

I'm gonna say that I am so not a reader. You’d think I would be but I'm not, I, this is just not the modality that I like to engage in. I'm like an audiovisual person. I like listening to podcasts, like this one for example, I listen to every single episode. But I will say that my partner recently bought me a book by one of my favorite comedians, Ali Wong. And she wrote a book called “Dear Girls.” So if you, if you have ever seen her, if you like her comedy, you will like this book. Essentially, she basically puts her, all her comedy mojo, juju, you know, voodoo into written form, and it's completely hilarious. It's completely a quick read, especially as someone who doesn't really like reading, and so that was the most recent book that I read for fun.

Brian Bienkowski

Excellent. Well, Annie, thank you so much for joining me today. Goodbye, eve

SUBSCRIBE TO EHN'S MUST-READ DAILY NEWSLETTER: ABOVE THE FOLD
Support good science journalism
From our Newsroom
PFAS in food

IN-DEPTH: What we know about PFAS in our food

Amid inadequate testing and a lack of regulation, we’re all eating “forever chemicals.”

invasive species

Peter Dykstra: American Invasive Species Hall of Fame, part 1

Flora and fauna that have left their mark.

Global Warming: Why the problem is worse – and solutions simpler – than you thought

Global Warming: Why the problem is worse – and solutions simpler – than you thought

Noted ecologist John Harte offers a fresh take on the dire topic of climate change.

PCB pollution

Most of the world agreed on safe PCB waste disposal. It’s not going great—especially in the US.

Just 13% of countries in the Stockholm Convention have disposed of the toxics according to global environmental standards.

PFAS Testing

Investigation: PFAS on our shelves and in our bodies

Testing finds concerning chemicals in everything from sports bras to ketchup, including in brands labeled PFAS-free.

ryan zinke

Peter Dykstra: Low crimes and misdemeanors

Multiple ethical violations used to mean bipartisan disdain. Now you get sent to Congress.