Think Out Loud

New research center created to protect kids from environmental health risks

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
Feb. 2, 2022 2 p.m. Updated: Feb. 10, 2022 12:09 a.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Feb. 2

Smoke obscures the hills and buildings normally visible in downtown, Portland, OR. The air quality in the city has been ranked as the worst of all major cities in the world due to smoke blowing in from several surrounding wildfires. Sept. 10, 2020.

Smoke obscures the hills and buildings normally visible in downtown, Portland, OR. The air quality in the city has been ranked as the worst of all major cities in the world due to smoke blowing in from several surrounding wildfires. Sept. 10, 2020.

Claudia Meza / OPB

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The federal government recently awarded nearly $5 million to Oregon State University to launch a new center that will turn environmental health research into practical applications to protect children from lead, arsenic and other toxins in the environment. Researchers plan to use the new grant funds to pilot outreach projects for at-risk groups and early childhood educators around conditions like asthma, which affects more than 60,000 children in Oregon and can be triggered by exposure to environmental factors like wildfire smoke and dust mites. Joining us is Molly Kile, a public health and human sciences professor at Oregon State University and a member of the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I am Dave Miller. Scientists at Oregon State University were recently awarded a nearly $5 million grant to protect children’s health that will help them launch a new research center. But the purpose of the grant isn’t to fund new basic research, at least not in the way you might think. Instead, the center will be focused on translating existing environmental health research into public health interventions and policies meaning practical applications to protect children from lead or arsenic or other toxins. Molly Kile is the principal investigator for this project. She’s a professor of public health and human sciences and a member of the Oregon State Environmental Quality Commission. She joins us now. Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Molly Kile: Hello, thank you for letting me be here.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. I’m curious – first, in the big picture, why you think this grant was necessary? I mean how big is the gulf between established environmental science and public policy or public awareness?

Kile: I think you have to take it into consideration also with the children’s aspect. So we do know that children and infants are particularly vulnerable to pollution and other environmental factors that can cause a lot of different, serious health outcomes. And so making sure that policies and practices and programs really address their unique vulnerabilities is an important component of what the center is going to try to do.

Miller: How much is that not the case? How big a disconnect is there between what you and other Environmental Epidemiologists or scientists know, and what is in practice in family homes?

Kile: It’s an excellent question. I would say probably off the top of my head, the only environmental standard that is out there that is particularly designed to be protective of children is the childhood blood-lead standard. The rest of them have been usually developed for adults with a margin of safety, but they are unique features to children. For instance, they have a lot of different activity patterns and behaviors that put them closer in contact with environmental hazards in the home. So for instance, their crawling, their hand to mouth activity. All of that increases their ingestion of house dust and particles that can be on the floor that can be contaminated with chemicals, and so trying to get into peoples’ homes and help them have information that allows them to think about these exposures and have practical strategies for reducing them. It’s kind of an individual level activity. It’s not something that you can regulate at a national federal standard. So it requires a different approach for getting that information in peoples’ hands and making sure that it is useful information and doesn’t just add to people’s worry budgets.

Miller: The worry budget. So you said this is not something that you can legislate. It’s interesting to see that the parts that can be, you know, legislated, the parts that end up in our homes where it’s just up to family decisions. I’ve been thinking about lead paint, where we’ve known for decades about the harm it causes, especially in childrens’ brains, irreversible harm, and there is a law, It hasn’t been sold or manufactured in the US since 1978, but it’s basically everywhere in older homes and it can come off in dust or paint chips. How would you say that the public health campaign has gone?

Kile: That’s a persistent problem, and it does exist here in Oregon. It requires interventions at multiple levels. So part of it is making sure that there are surveillance programs to capture those pockets where there is more lead-based hazards, and I would say it’s beyond just lead paint. I think there’s lead also in older drinking water systems. There’s also some lead in spices that have been linked to lead poisoning here in Oregon and things like that. So it’s not just focusing on lead paint. But some of this is about trying to find those communities that still have the problem, making sure that there are resources available at kind of a state level to assist homeowners, but it’s also making sure that parents know about this hazard, and that making sure that the information is accessible in different languages, making sure that it’s accessible at different points of contact that people would have. There’s a pretty classic bulge in lead poisoning that happened for instance, when people were starting to renovate homes, older homes and putting in nurseries and that was good intention, but people sanding down lead paint, so maybe that information needs to be distributed at the point of DIY Centers, you know, there’s opportunities here to get information out that we haven’t currently tapped.

Miller: You mentioned lead in water supplies from older pipes. That’s something that I imagine people will be, hopefully at this point, relatively familiar with. The Flint, Michigan story was an egregious recent example of a grand scale of that. But spices is new to me. Where is lead in spices?

Kile: It’s a new hazard that’s been identified and what has been found is particularly Turmeric. So it is a root that is largely grown in the tropics. And some of the research that we’ve done in the past, both myself and other organizations, has shown that there’s a bit of a nefarious practice of dipping the root in yellow powder to make it kind of brighter and hide maybe insect damage. That powder turned out to be lead chromate. So when that root gets ground down, the lead gets ground into the spice, it kind of makes it a brighter yellow, which can appeal to certain consumers. So there’s been efforts to try to make sure that that isn’t happening in the international spice trade with commercial products, but we do see some lead poisoning happening when families go home and buy spices, you know back home because the home, for instance, Indian families or Southeast Asian families, like the curry is the family identity and being able to buy those spices back home makes it extra special, but they bring them back into the United States and then they’re making those food products here. So some of that is getting some very specific information into the hands of certain ethnic communities and making sure that they are aware that that is a potential hazard and helping them identify it so that they can avoid it.

Miller: Was that identified in the States because children were found to have high blood-lead levels and it was eventually traced to Turmeric?

Kile: It was, and it’s an example of the phone calls that I get at work early on in my career and I still do a lot of research in Bangladesh around metal poisoning and children’s health. And a study that we had done a while ago, we noticed that there was really high lead levels in the villages that we were working in and we couldn’t figure out the source. And eventually we did identify the local Turmeric in Bangladesh, rural villages having this lead chromate powder. Fast forward about a decade, and the Oregon Lead Program reached out to me saying, ‘hey, we saw this article that you wrote, and we have kind of tracked that down to a few cases here in Oregon, can you help us reach out to the Southeast Asian community to raise awareness of what this is?’ And we’ve been able to kind of establish informational systems here, but it’d be nice to be able to scale that up. And we’re hoping that that’s kind of some of the examples of the work that the center will be able to do.

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Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now to Molly Kile, a Professor of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University. She is working now with the help of a new almost $5 million federal grant to translate Environmental Health Research into actual policies that can improve childrens’ health.  Let’s look at asthma as another example. First of all, how common is it among children in Oregon?

Kile: Yes. So asthma is actually one of the more common diseases in children that has a lot of environmental triggers to it. So it’s very amenable to environmental actions to help control the illness and reduce the number of attacks. I don’t have the prevalence in Oregon at the tip of my tongue. But I do know that the prevalence of asthma in children in Oregon is about a point or two higher than the national average and we’re not sure why that is.

Miller: What are some of the environmental factors that can make it worse?

Kile: So some of the big ones are air pollution, both outdoor air pollution and then also indoor air pollution. We got a lot of questions when those big wildfire, smoke events were happening in Oregon during the summer, a lot of parents were kind of reaching out to us and trying to ask for information on how to protect their children. There’s also indoor air pollution exposures that you might not really think about. You know how many of us have a nice gas range in our kitchens that we use more than one time a day, that’s a combustion source, that if we’re not using the ventilation hood is contributing to poor indoor air quality.

Miller: What did you tell the families that called up during wildfire season, who said, ‘I’m concerned about asthma, am concerned about my kids breathing these particulates. I mean what can you say when it’s everywhere?

Kile: Yeah, so there was a lot of these phone calls and all of a sudden people were kind of learning a lot more about their ventilation systems and homes than they had thought of before. So that’s just an example of kind of the information gap out there. But if you have a home that the goal is really to try to create a clean space in your home that can be a refuge. So some of that is if you were lucky enough to have one of those high efficiency HEPA air filters to know, to kind of create a space and then spend your time in that. The challenge in those events, and especially during COVID is those HEPA filters just weren’t available. And so then you start talking about kind of your DIY options that include kind of going into the Home Depot stores and buying a Merv 13 or higher filter. So those are the filters that you put in your ventilation systems that you should be changing regularly. But you can attach those to standing fans and kind of create your own DIY HEPA filters, that helps. There was a lot of conversations around appropriate masks that would prevent the air pollution exposures. So you do need to have those N95 or KN95 that fortunately now are available. That’s the style mask that is the right one to reduce your exposures to air pollution if you’re going out and if you have a child with asthma during those kind of events, that is an option that you can have when you go outside. It’s also kind of also knowing when to go outside and when not to. So being aware of how to monitor your air quality, what apps are out there, what apps you can download that will give you accurate information. So there’s a couple of different features of that.

Miller: How much does everything that you’re talking about… I mean translating science into public policy or recommendations or advice, how much does that rely on people trusting scientists, trusting people like you?

Kile: So that is an excellent point, and I think that is one of the reasons that OSU received this grant is that we are one of the only land grant institutions to get this. And we have a very active and very trusted extension service. So we’re going to be trying to use the Family Community Health Extension Service to get information about environmental hazards into the hands of people in a very practical and very accurate manner. And the extension service is a trusted source. These are the folks that our master gardener programs and Four-H Clubs, snap-ed. You know, the idea is not to try to create sensationalism about it, it’s about providing just accurate science-based information in a way that is useful to individuals. And if we can identify messages that work and resonate, then we can disseminate that nationwide and hopefully speed up the adoption of some of these messages and get them into the hands of families.

Miller: I noted that in addition to your academic appointment at OSU you also serve on the Environmental Quality Commission which oversees Oregon’s DEQ. What are your own priorities as a member of that commission?

Kile: I do try to I wear a couple of different hats in my life and it is a privilege to be one of the commissioners. And what I’ve learned is really the importance of the collaboration across institutes, agencies, to ultimately improve the quality of life in Oregon. And so a lot of the activities in the center actually fall under the initiatives of the Oregon Health Authority. So as a commissioner, I’ve been lucky enough to kind of learn and understand how the legislation and agencies work together and identify opportunities where we can insert information and/ or try to encourage adoption of standards that are protective of children in particular.

Miller: What are you paying the most attention to in terms of environmental regulation in this new legislative session that just started yesterday?

Kile: It’ll be exciting to see what happens. This is where the hat that I wear as a commissioner is different than the hat that I wear as a professor down here at OSU.

Miller: Because you can push more as a professor than you can as a commissioner,you can be more of an activist?

Kile: The roles and responsibilities are just different. As a commissioner, I get the opportunity to help kind of pass the rules around environmental quality. So it definitely draws on my experience and knowledge of environmental health and public health. But as a professor I get to really dig into discovering new knowledge and my work is an environmental epidemiologist. And so this research translation center really does fall under my academic appointment. And what’s exciting to me is right now, it’s not in the legislative session but what’s happening right now is Oregon has a Public Health Modernization Act happening. And so this has an opportunity to really kind of start working with policymakers and decision makers and working with community based organizations and working with the CBOs to make sure that childrens’ environmental health needs are met within these existing programs. And then also there’s a lot of unfunded mandates within Oregon Health Authority that are related to children’s health that we’re excited to try to be a part of like the Healthy School Facilities Program. And then the Oregon Choose Safe Places Program which is working with early childhood educators and schools to make sure that the schools are making the best decisions possible and have the right information to protect children from these kind of environmental hazards.

Miller: Molly Kile, Thanks very much for joining us today. I appreciate it.

Kile: My pleasure. Thank you for having us.

Miller:  Molly Kile is an Environmental Epidemiologist at Oregon State University. She is a Professor of Public Health and Human Sciences there.

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