Environmental Health Sciences

Environmental Health Sciences

Road Work

In a collaborative study with UM scientists, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the community-based participatory research partnership Community Action Against Asthma, SPH Professor Stuart Batterman is analyzing the health effects of air pollution on children living near the nation’s heavily traveled thoroughfares. The study is funded through a $1.4 million grant from the EPA’s Science to Achieve Results program.

“The knowledge gained from this study will arm local governments with the best available science when planning some of their most important projects, such as road and school design,” says Lek Kadeli, acting assistant administrator for the EPA Office of Research and Development. “This information will help build safer communities for our children.”

Batterman and his colleagues are studying traffic-associated pollution in Detroit and whether it could lead to more severe asthma attacks in children ages six to 16. They’re examining the types of pollutants common near roadways, how people are exposed to them, the extent of exposures, and the types and severity of health effects. More than 45 million people in the U.S. live within 300 feet of a four-lane road, airport, or railroad.

Whether Too Little or Too Much, Iron May Affect Cognition

Evidence suggests that children born to women who don’t get enough iron during pregnancy suffer cognitive and behavioral impairment in their early years and into adolescence. Both animal and human studies indicate that at the age of one or two, the offspring of iron-deficient mothers have problems with memory formation, spatial coordination, and alertness, says SPH Searle Assistant Professor Dana Dolinoy, who is trying to understand the mechanism behind the phenomenon.

Dolinoy is working with human nutrition doctoral student (and SPH alumna) Olivia Anderson, MPH ’09, and scientists in the UM Center for Human Growth and Development to see whether the cause is epigenetic—that is, whether the damage to cognition stems not directly from the DNA sequence “but from the software that encodes our genome,” Dolinoy says. The epigenome—the layer of molecules that sits on top of the genome and, like a dimmer switch, regulates the degree to which individual genes are turned on or off—is particularly vulnerable during the early stages of pregnancy, she adds.

The offspring of mothers who get too much iron—rather than too little—may also show epigenetic changes, and Dolinoy and her colleagues are conducting additional research aimed at finding out whether an iron-zinc interaction may be the culprit. In the end, says Dolinoy, “it’s very much about balance: not too much, not too little.”

Chemicals in Consumer Products Linked to Preterm Births

A study of expectant mothers suggests that a group of common environmental contaminants called phthalates, which are present in many industrial and consumer products—including everyday personal care items—may be contributing to an alarming rise in premature births in the U.S. SPH researchers have found that women who deliver prematurely have, on average, up to three times the phthalate level in their urine compared to women who carry to term.

John Meeker, Rita Loch-Caruso, and Howard Hu of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences and collaborators from the National Institute of Public Health in Mexico and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed data from 60 women—30 who carried to term and 30 who delivered prematurely (defined as fewer than 37 weeks gestation). They found significantly higher levels of phthalate metabolites in the urine of women who delivered prematurely.

Premature birth accounts for one-third of infant deaths in the U.S., says Meeker, making it the leading cause of neonatal mortality. Being born too early can also lead to chronic health problems such as blindness, deafness, cerebral palsy, and low IQ. Since 1981, premature births have increased by more than 30 percent in the U.S.

Phthalates are commonly used compounds in plastics, personal care products, home furnishings, and many other consumer and industrial products. Past studies show that several phthalates cause reproductive and developmental toxicity in animals. This is the first known study to look at the relationship between phthalates and premature births. —by Laura Bailey

A Rats’ Tale

Kids hate fruits and vegetables—it’s an old story. But Craig Cousineau has given it a new twist with Skippy and Oaf (DNA Press, 2007), a little book about a pair of laboratory rats that’s making waves in elementary schools in northern Michigan and elsewhere.

Cousineau, a student in the SPH human nutrition program who hopes to combine a career as a primary care physician with public health research, wrote the book for the Delta-Schoolcraft Intermediate School District in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where he grew up. The idea was to teach young children why vegetables and fruits are good for them.

Enter Skippy and Oaf, a couple of lab rats who get into a long conversation about plants and their role in human health. It’s a complicated tale that involves DNA, oxygen radicals, and antioxidants, but Cousineau manages to make the hard science accessible—while driving home the message that fruits and vegetables help prevent disease, lower weight, and boost energy.

Dozens of elementary schools in the Upper Peninsula have begun using the book in their science curricula. It comes with two weeks’ worth of lesson plans, posters, worksheets, and activities—including smoothies, Cousineau says. “We bring in different fruits, and the kids get to say what they want.”

Surveys show Skippy and Oaf is making an impact. At one school, a first-grader who used to come to school every day with nothing but a candy bar for lunch now shows up with a sandwich, carrots, and a piece of fruit.