Pilot Project Recipients Year 10

Measuring Unknown PFAS Exposures and their Effects on Preterm Birth

Study Title: Comparing Two Analytic Methods for Assessing PFAS Exposures in Environmental Epidemiology Studies: Targeted PFAS Mixtures Versus Total Flourine

PI: Stephanie Eick, School of Public Health, Environmental Health

PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) are a class of chemicals found almost everywhere in the United States, including the water we drink, the food we eat, clothing we wear, and non-stick pans we cook with. High levels of PFAS have been linked to cancer, diabetes, pregnancy induced high blood pressure, and preterm birth. More than 9,000 PFAS exist, however, most research is focused on 10 to 12 individual PFAS chemicals. This means that there are potentially thousands of unknown PFAS chemicals that are understudied and difficult to measure, and yet could be harmful to human health. This pilot project will determine the amount of unknown PFAS in pregnant people. We will do this by measuring the levels of known PFAS and organoflourine, an indicator of total PFAS exposure, in 50 African American pregnant people in Atlanta, Georgia, a population that consistently experiences high rates of preterm birth relative to other racial and ethnic groups. We will also assess whether having a high level of unknown PFAS is associated with preterm birth. Findings from our study may illustrate disparities in known and unknown PFAS exposure important to perinatal (the weeks immediately before and after birth) health outcomes.

How this study advances exposome science: This study uses exposome methods to characterize exposures to unknown chemicals that are difficult to measure. This will provide insight into how PFAS as a class of chemicals affect maternal and child health and health disparities.  Furthermore, results from this pilot project may inform risk assessment, future biomonitoring studies, and early disease detection for potential clinical interventions.

Mobile Health (mHealth) Technologies for Monitoring Environmental Exposures and Health Impacts in Low-Income Communities

Study Title: Mobile Health (mHealth) for Monitoring Environmental Exposures and Health Impacts in Low-Income Communities: A Community-Engaged Pilot Study

PI: Christine Ekenga, School of Public Health, Environmental Health

Low-income communities experience chronic exposure to multiple social and environmental stressors. There is growing interest in utilizing mobile health (mHealth) technologies to monitor and improve health in these low-income settings. In addition to providing real-time health and environmental data, mHealth technologies may be useful for actively engaging users in environmental health promotion. In collaboration with local community partners, this project will evaluate whether smartphone-based mobile monitoring is a feasible and acceptable means of collecting environmental, social, and health outcome data from residents of predominantly low-income communities. This pilot project will be a key first step in identifying implementation strategies for adopting mHealth technologies to identify and intervene in local environmental health concerns.

How this study advances exposome science: This project will serve as a proof-of-concept for future research and interventions that will utilize mHealth technologies for monitoring a variety of stressors and adverse health outcomes.

The Impact of Discriminatory Housing Policies on Air Pollution and Breast Cancer Survival

Study Title: The Legacy of Redlining on the Burden of Air Quality and Breast Cancer Outcomes in Georgia

PI: Lauren McCullough, School of Public Health, Epidemiology

Housing policies have a substantial impact on neighborhoods. Redlining, a policy implemented in the 1930s, discouraged mortgage lenders from funding home loans in majority Black or immigrant neighborhoods. Although redlining was made illegal in 1968, the impact it had on urban areas remains largely intact. The goal of this study is to better understand how redlining impacts changes in air pollution, which is a risk factor for mortality and chronic health conditions. Since redlining was more likely to occur in Black neighborhoods, we are also evaluating the effect of redlining on breast cancer survival differences. We believe that redlining could explain why Black women experience worse breast cancer survival compared to White women. Finally, we will develop a measure of present-day redlining—examining current practices of discrimination in mortgage lending by race and across neighborhoods—to identify ongoing practices that are modifiable.

How this study advances exposome science: Socio-political factors like discriminatory housing policies are an understudied element of the exposome. Results from this study will help us understand the long-term impact of discriminatory housing policies on environmental risk factors and breast cancer survival among Black women, which is an initial step toward informing housing policy and expanding exposome research to include socio-political exposures.

Novel Methods for Heterogeneity Detection in Environmental Epidemiology

PI: Ashley Naimi, School of Public Health, Epidemiology

Environmental factors play an essential role in health outcomes and are usually the result of a complex interplay between components of the “exposome” and other key variables. This complexity has led to several challenges. Unfortunately, the most commonly used analytic methods are ill-suited to evaluate these complex relations between exposures and health outcomes. This work will capitalize on recent advancements in machine learning and artificial intelligence to develop techniques to disentangle the complex role that components of the exposome play in affecting health and disease. We will examine how exposure to commonly encountered chemicals that interfere with our bodies’ hormones (endocrine disrupting chemicals) affects fertility. We will develop and test new machine learning methods for quantifying complex exposure effects.

How this study advances exposome science: The results from this study will provide important insights into the role that machine learning can play in developing our understanding of the role of the exposome on health.

Can an Herbicide Affect Human Gut Microbes?

Study Title: Shikimic Acid and 3-dehydroshikimic Acid in Blood and Urine: Potential Biomarkers of the Gut Microbiome Stress Resulting from Glyphosate Exposures

PI: Parinya Panuwet, School of Public Health, Environmental Health

Glyphosate is the most commonly used herbicide to control weeds and invasive plants and is the primary chemical in Round-Up. Over 200 million pounds of glyphosate are applied in the United States annually, leading to wide-spread glyphosate contamination in the environment and food. Thus, exposure to glyphosate via agricultural and residential use, including via contaminated food and water consumption, is common. Glyphosate kills plants by disrupting the shikimic acid (SA) pathway thus preventing the production of their growth proteins. The SA pathway also exists in microorganisms that live in the human gut. This project aims to evaluate if the SA pathway of human gut microbes is disrupted following glyphosate exposure. Gut microbes play a vital role in maintaining human health. Therefore, understanding the effect of glyphosate exposure on the function of gut microbes will provide insight into related health impacts. 

How this study advances exposome science: The results from this study will provide important evidence about the effect of glyphosate exposure in humans, which is an initial step towards informing herbicide policy and practice.

Climate change, Hazardous Waste and Environmental Justice in Brunswick, GA

PI: Noah Scovronick, School of Public Health, Environmental Health

The city of Brunswick, a majority African American and low-income city in southeast Georgia, is located on the coast and faces climate-related risks including severe storms, rising sea levels and flooding.  Brunswick also has many hazardous waste sites and ongoing industrial activities that produce air and water pollution. Residents of Brunswick have concerns about these compounding risks and have expressed the need for more information on what is in their environment and who is being affected. In this project, we will first meet with community representatives to identify a research question of high priority to the community. Based on the research question, we will then collect the necessary environmental samples and analyze them in Emory’s laboratory. Finally, we will make the results available to the community through a series of outreach activities.

How this study advances exposome science:  This research focuses on the interaction between three compounding and integrated health issues: climate change, hazardous waste, and environmental justice. This project will partner with community members to collect and identify information about their environmental exposure concerns, providing an initial step towards increasing this community’s climate resilience.