As Margaret Mead once said, “We won’t have a society if we destroy the environment.” The growing environmental health field is concerned with what effects an increasingly-altered environment has on human health, including possible influences and toxins and how to control exposure to these hazardous physical, chemical, and biological agents in air, water, soil, and food. SUNY researchers are at the forefront of this challenging field, developing original solutions to growing environmental health care problems by working in areas that include biology, environmental effects, disease-bearing parasites, the effects of climate change, and infectious pathogens.
Employing the robust facilities and knowledgeable faculty of the SUNY Upstate Medical University and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF), the SUNY Center for Environmental Health and Medicine works locally as well as globally on the biggest challenges to population health. Focusing on the link between human health and the environment, the Center aims to transform health care problems by initiating research and expanding educational opportunities. To create the Center, $15 million was awarded through a competitive SUNY grant program to SUNY ESF, SUNY Upstate Medical University, SUNY Oswego and Onondaga Community College.
Nanomaterials have developed at such a rapid rate that their influence on digestive health is only beginning to be explored. Binghamton University Associate Professor Gretchen Mahler from the Department of Biomedical Engineering, who was recently promoted to Associate Dean of the Graduate School, and Assistant Professor Cláudia Marques from the Department of Biological Sciences, have received a $1.53 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for their study titled “Engineering a Small Intestinal Microbiome to Evaluate Food Additive Exposure.” They will examine how the nanoparticles we consume can affect our digestive tract functions.
“Nanomaterials are increasingly used in consumer products, processed food and food packaging, but few studies have determined the consequences of nanoparticle ingestion,” explains Mahler. “The ultimate goal of this work is to determine if and how ingested metal oxide nanoparticles alter microorganism populations and intestinal function.”
Vector-borne disease is on the rise. According to a recent Center for Disease Control Report, diseases caused by tick, mosquito and flea bites more than tripled in the US between 2004 and 2016, with nine new diseases either occurring for the first time. The University at Albany is partnering with seven other universities and three state departments of health, including the New York State Department of Health, as part of the $10 million CDC-Funded Northeast Center for Excellence in Vector-borne Diseases (NEVBD) at Cornell University. Partnering in the NEVBD are UAlbany’s Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences and School of Public Health, which will work with the Wadsworth Center to address the monitoring, prevention, and response to vector-borne diseases. Scientists concur that higher temperatures and heavier rainfall increase the number of mosquitoes, the spread of pathogens, and the incidence of disease; thus the need for the NEVBD.
Once toxic chemicals are introduced into the environment, they affect the life cycles of organisms and their food webs. University at Buffalo (UB) chemists are studying how chemicals such as flame retardants and pesticides accumulate in the local ecosystem, especially in fish, birds and bird eggs. One particular focus is the passage of chemicals from mother birds to their eggs and young. The research is a partnership between Diana Aga, UB chemistry professor, and Alicia Pérez-Fuentetaja, SUNY Buffalo State biology professor and research scientist at SUNY Buffalo State’s Great Lakes Center.
Think twice before reaching for that antibacterial soap. A consensus statement (“The Florence Statement on Triclosan and Triclocarban”) published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives says that common antimicrobial products do more harm than good to human health and the environment, and calls for more restraint in their overuse. Laura Geer, associate professor and chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences in the School of Public Health, SUNY Downstate Medical Center, says, “Antimicrobial substances added by manufacturers to common household products can potentially disrupt the human endocrine system, without providing significant safety advantages, and they are known to linger in the environment.” Her research has shown associations between maternal exposure to antimicrobials and decreased gestational age at birth, thus supporting efforts to minimize exposure during pregnancy.
Another study at SUNY Downstate has found a strong connection between Bisphenol A (BPA) — a common chemical used in manufacturing plastic water bottles and other consumer items — and childhood obesity. Lori Hoepner, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the School of Public Health (in collaboration with researchers from the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health at Mailman School of Public Health) found that 94 percent of women studied had the chemical in their urine. A significant relationship was found between prenatal exposure to BPA and measures of body fat in school-aged children. These study results also appeared online in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
Shampoo, rinse, repeat. That might be good for your hair, but not so good for the environment. SUNY Cortland Assistant Professor Katherine Hicks and her chemistry students have particles on their minds, particularly nicotinic acid. This item is part of a class of organic compounds called N-heterocyclic aromatic compounds (NHACs), which are used in many personal care products. These tiny molecules eventually become pervasive pollutants in soil and water, posing risks for and causing mutations in aquatic life. Through a collaborative three-year grant of $290,796 from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Hicks and her students, alongside a team at the College of Wooster (Ohio), are developing a possible biochemical solution to this problem. They have found that common soil-dwelling bacteria contain enzymes that can help break down nicotinic acid. Utilizing genetic technology and structural protein crystallography, Hicks hopes to further explore how bacteria in soil and water can diminish pollutants.
Scientists are beginning to discover that microplastics can now be found everywhere. A SUNY Fredonia research team was the first to identify the presence of plastic microbeads in the Great Lakes and raised awareness of their health effects. This work has influenced national and international environmental policy. The research has expanded to examine the environmental effects of synthetic fibers from materials used in fleece products. These fabric fibers enter the ecosystem through the wash cycle, since they’re tiny enough to get past wastewater filtration systems. The fibers are then ingested by fish and enter the food chain, introducing endocrine disruptors, neurotoxins and carcinogens in both aquatic organisms and humans.
Everything is interconnected. The substances humans introduce into the environment, in turn, affect health, be it directly, in the form of toxins, or indirectly, by sparking climate change, which in turn can increase the number of parasites that carry vector-borne diseases. SUNY researchers are exploring all the major influences on health, from the food chain to nanomaterials to societal influences. They hope to find the keys, and through controlling these factors, improve the health outlook for the whole human race.