How Rutgers Health Research Informs Policy Changes at Local, State and National Levels
From advising on the dangers of menthol cigarettes to advocating for 9/11 first responders, faculty and researchers sit at the vanguard of informed policymaking
Residents were annoyed when the heavy trucks began appearing on First Street in downtown Elizabeth, New Jersey. But by 2014, with evidence that asthma was surging along the make-shift truck route, annoyance turned to action.
Closing off First Street to trucks avoiding tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike was something only city council members could authorize. To convince them, community members partnered with the Rutgers Center for Environmental Exposures and Disease to count trucks and monitor air quality.
In 2017, three years after the counting began, Elizabeth’s city council passed an ordinance that prohibited loads exceeding four tons – essentially banning tractor trailers from the residential street. It was Rutgers’ data that tipped the scales.
“When we went to the hearings, their statistics gave us irrefutable proof that the trucks were making a negative impact on our air quality,” said James Carey, who assisted with the research and is the director of social services of Elizabethport Presbyterian Center on First Street. “They were the catalyst for change.”
For more than a decade, Rutgers Health has advanced biomedical and health-care innovation through cures, therapies, research and education. Occasionally, this leadership informs and even fuels policy changes at local, state and national levels.
“Whenever possible, we connect Rutgers faculty with policymakers to ensure that decisions are grounded in the best available science,” said George LeBlanc, vice president of government and fiscal affairs at Rutgers. “We try our best to ensure that Rutgers’ expertise is always part of the legislative conversation.”
One example took place in 2018. Following the death of New Jersey teacher Tara Hansen in 2011 from an undetected infection six days after giving birth, Gloria A. Bachmann, associate dean of women's health and director of the Women’s Health Institute at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS), initiated interprofessional educational programs to raise awareness and educate the health care team on strategies to reduce maternal mortality.
Together with the Tara Hansen Foundation, Bachmann and colleagues joined together to develop the “Stop! Look! and Listen!” maternal safety campaign. Later, the medical school joined with the foundation, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, and others to lobby lawmakers in Trenton for the establishment of an annual Maternal Health Awareness Day.
Under the sponsorship of State Senator Joseph Vitale, the first Maternal Health Awareness Day in New Jersey was set for Jan. 23, 2018 – the first of its kind legislated nationally. This day is now recognized annually and since it was established, 33 states and Canada have taken similar steps. Professional societies, such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (with over 60,000 members) also recognize Maternal Health Awareness Day, Bachmann said.
“’The Stop. Look. Listen!’ campaign and New Jersey being the first state to designate a day to focus on maternal health are major steps forward in our commitment to maternal health awareness and safety," said Bachmann. “Our goal continues to be implementing innovative ways to improve care, outreach and empowerment of all women, both during pregnancy and during the post-natal period, so that they and their newborns have the best possible opportunity to leave the hospital in excellent health and not have any medical complications once home.”
In 2021, Bachmann brought similar passion to an initiative that made New Jersey the first state to legislate a task force to fight disease transmission from animals to people. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Bachmann led a push for New Jersey to establish the “N.J. One Health Task Force,” which promotes communication between state agencies and scientists studying human health, animal health and the earth sciences.
That law is based on efforts by the Rutgers One Health Steering Committee, which was started in 2016 by Bachmann, Amy Papi, a volunteer at the Rutgers RWJMS Women's Health Institute, and Sona Jasani, an instructor at RWJMS.
“The task force will give scientists in various disciplines, health officials and lawmakers an infrastructure for communication and collaboration,” said Dina Fonseca, a member of the N.J. One Health steering committee and director of the Rutgers Center for Vector Biology. “By sharing our data and expertise, we can find better solutions and act faster.”
Sometimes Rutgers’ legislative efforts reach beyond the state’s borders. In 2023, Rutgers researchers and caregivers helped secure medical coverage and financial compensation for women exposed to Ground Zero conditions who developed uterine cancer – among the most common cancers in women in the U.S.
The effort to include uterine cancer among conditions covered by the World Trade Center (WTC) Health Program began when Iris Udasin, principal investigator for the WTC Health Program at Rutgers – noticed several cases among first responders she was treating.
Udasin discussed the matter with her colleague Judith Graber, an associate professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health. The two agreed that the cancers were most likely caused by Ground Zero exposure, so they decided to ask the federal government for coverage.
“I had already authored several studies that had shown an excess of all cancers in responders, and we knew that a lot of the chemicals people had been exposed to were endocrine disruptors that can lead to this type of cancer, so it made sense to request this addition,” Udasin said.
Udasin added the recognition “will make a huge difference for the women who have developed this condition, the women who go on to develop this condition and all of their families.”
Similar efforts will continue to shape the Rutgers Health legacy, said LeBlanc. While researchers may not set out to change laws or policies, their work often has that impact.
“By frequently engaging with Rutgers Health researchers and faculty, lawmakers have access to expert insights to inform their policy choices,” said LeBlanc. “From hearings on the dangers of menthol cigarettes to reducing the risk of congenital syphilis, Rutgers Health is a partner in shaping the laws that protect the people of New Jersey, and beyond.”
RBHS 10th Anniversary
In 10 years, Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS) has seen transformational achievements that have catalyzed us, changed Rutgers, and benefitted New Jersey and our valued partners and communities. Throughout this year, we're celebrating our impact and telling our story.