New research from the University of Iowa shows that polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chemicals known to cause cancer in humans, are present in older schools and that the source of the PCBs is most likely outdated building materials, such as window caulking and light ballasts.
The multi-year study by the Iowa Superfund Research Program at the UI is the largest yet to examine airborne PCBs in schools. It shows that though the presence of PCBs can vary from school to school and even classroom to classroom, children’s exposure rates are roughly the same in rural and urban areas. It also shows that exposure to PCBs by inhalation may be equal to or higher than exposure through diet, a finding that surprised researchers.
Researchers collected indoor and outdoor air samples at six schools in Iowa and Indiana from 2012 to 2015. And though none of the schools had PCB levels high enough to meet federal standards for immediate remediation, researchers say the study is important because it shows that reduction of airborne PCBs in schools could be accomplished by removing old caulk around windows and modernizing light fixtures.
The study, published in Environmental Science & Technology, comes at a time of increasing concern over PCBs in schools. In 2014, a school in Lexington, Massachusetts, was shuttered after high levels of PCBs were found inside the building. New York City officials recently completed a multi-year program to replace PCB-laden light ballasts in more than 800 schools. And last year, parents in Malibu, California, won a publicized court battle to remove PCBs in schools.
“Due to the presence of PCBs in the environment, humans are easily exposed to them,” says Rachel F. Marek, assistant research scientist at the UI College of Engineering and lead author of the study. “Exposure of school-aged children to PCBs is of particular concern because these are compounds we know impair memory and learning and cause cancer in humans.”
Besides PCBs, researchers looked for the first time at OH-PCBs, chemical compounds similar to PCBs, in schools. Although there is still much to learn about OH-PCBs and their potential health risks, some scientists believe that OH-PCBs could be more toxic than PCBs.
PCBs are man-made chemical compounds that were used in industrial and commercial applications from 1929 to 1979, when they were banned. However, PCBs are still present in the environment, especially in areas with high concentrations of heavy industry and in buildings constructed in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, when PCBs were used in various building materials. Many public schools were built with PCB-laced materials, and public health experts estimate that as many as 25,920 schools nationwide still have window caulking that contains the chemical compounds.
Schools are not required to measure PCBs; however, the United States Environmental Protection Agency provides guidelines for acceptable PCB levels. UI researchers studied PCB levels in four urban schools in East Chicago, Indiana, and two rural schools in Columbus Junction, Iowa. PCB levels inside the schools were below the current EPA action level of 500 nanograms per cubic meter, with a maximum reading of 194 ng/m3. The highest PCB levels were reported at two schools in East Chicago. Both were built before the PCB ban in 1979.
“Our nation’s schools must provide a safe and healthy environment for growing and learning,” says Peter S. Thorne, professor and head of occupational and environmental health in the UI College of Public Health and principal investigator of the study. “In addition to protecting children from risks such as asthma and obesity, schools need to be free of elevated exposures to persistent pollutants, including lead and PCBs.”
The exact level of PCB exposure at which harm is caused to children is unknown. This is a question that the Iowa Superfund Research Program is trying to answer through its research.
The four schools in East Chicago are not far from the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal, an industrial waterway that is a known source of airborne PCBs. Researchers hypothesized that the schools’ proximity to the canal would influence PCB levels inside the schools. However, though indoor air samples from two of the schools resembled air samples collected near the canal, indoor air samples from the other two schools presented very different results, which researchers concluded were caused by the presence of PCBs typically linked to window caulking and light ballasts.
Tests of indoor and outdoor air at two schools in Columbus Junction, which has no known source of industry-related PCB contamination, presented further evidence of PCB contamination via old building materials. Paint pigments also were found to be a likely source of PCBs in the schools.
“This is the first time we’ve been able to pinpoint the source of PCBs inside schools,” says Keri C. Hornbuckle, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the UI College of Engineering and project leader for the Iowa Superfund Research Program. “This study shows that the indoor air is contaminated, and that contamination is due to materials that remain in use in the school buildings.”
UI researchers are planning their next PCB project, one that will measure PCB levels in different rooms in the same pre-1979 building. They also plan to offer free indoor PCB testing to schools.
“The results of our study are really quite chilling,” says Hornbuckle. “To put it simply, any school that hasn’t been remodeled since the 1970s may have high levels of PCBs in the air, which children breathe day in and day out.”
The Iowa Superfund Research Program (ISRP) at the University of Iowa studies the sources, exposures, and toxicities of PCBs in the environment. This program, which is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, brings together scientists with expertise in toxicology, engineering, microbiology, public health, and chemistry.
The goal of the Airborne Exposure to Semi-Volatile Organic Pollutants (AESOP) Study, part of ISRP, is to measure PCB exposure levels indoors and out and to track PCB exposure among 345 children and their mothers. The study, which began in 2006, already has provided new insight into airborne PCB exposure and challenged prevailing views on how humans are exposed to PCBs.
This story originally appeared in Iowa Now.
Additional Media Coverage
Study: Replace aging building materials in schools
Four East Chicago schools Have PCB levels
The Times of Northwest Indiana
U of I study finds PCBs in Columbus Junction Schools
The Muscatine Journal
UI finds PCBs in schools
Des Moines Business Record
One of the most effective ways to improve the health of large numbers of people is through public health policy. Examples of successful policy initiatives with far-reaching impact include seat belt laws, tobacco regulations, and banning lead from paint.
To help faculty enhance their skills in translating public health research into practice and policy, the College of Public Health recently established a new Policy Fellow Program. Offered through the college’s Iowa Institute of Public Health Research and Policy (IIPHRP), the year-long program creates opportunities for primary faculty to attend training workshops, connect with experts, interact with policymakers and stakeholders, and develop and implement a policy-related project.
“As researchers, we have a desire to impact our community, and that means translating evidence into policy or practice change. Building stakeholder coalitions and creating effective dissemination plans are strategies that work, but are not skills most researchers have been formally trained in,” says Vickie Miene, IIPHRP interim director. “The Policy Fellow Program provides a supportive and individualized learning environment for faculty to experiment and learn these important skills while simultaneously translating their research into public health practice.”
Each fellow develops and implements an “action learning project” that focuses on a critical public health topic. The project includes at least one stakeholder meeting and a final product, such as a policy brief, proposed legislative language, or a how-to guide, to disseminate at the end of the fellowship.
“Our goal is to select fellows who are enthusiastic, who address significant public health issues, and who propose a project that will likely generate an effective example of translating research into policy or practice,” says Miene.
The 2016-2017 Policy Fellows are Mary Charlton, assistant professor of epidemiology; Cara Hamann, associate in epidemiology; and Kelli Ryckman, associate professor of epidemiology. Their projects, described in the following pages, are currently underway and will wrap up at the end of summer 2017, with final summaries posted on the IIPHRP web site.
Modernizing Cancer Reporting
Mary Charlton, assistant professor of epidemiology, is also an investigator with the Iowa Cancer Registry (ICR). Her project recommends policy changes to modernize Iowa’s cancer reporting laws.
The ICR is a population-based cancer registry that has served the State of Iowa since 1973. The registry is funded by the National Cancer Institute as part of its Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Result’s (SEER) Program. Through its registries, the SEER Program routinely collects cancer data and patient demographics and is the authoritative source of information on cancer incidence and survival in the U.S.
According to SEER, “The ICR provides accurate and thorough reporting of cancer disease. The ICR has been consistently recognized for its extremely high quality data. However, Iowa has some of the weakest reporting laws compared to other states. Iowa also has one of the lowest rates of e-path (electronic) reporting of all SEER registries.”
In Iowa, about 25,000 cancer abstracts per year are collected from hospitals, pathology laboratories, cancer treatment centers, and physician practices. Two-thirds of the abstracts are collected by the 14 Iowa hospitals with accredited cancer centers. Trained staff employed by the ICR collect cancer data from the other 104 hospitals and non-hospital sites of diagnosis. The ICR maintains the confidentiality of the patients, physicians, and hospitals providing data.
To ensure continued funding from NCI, it is necessary to address the low rate of electronic reporting and Iowa’s weak cancer reporting requirements, which require a disproportionate amount of NCI funds to be spent on cancer data collection compared to other SEER registries.
“Existing Iowa cancer reporting requirements were developed long before widespread use of electronic record systems and at a time when nearly every cancer patient received treatment in a hospital,” Charlton says. “Cancer reporting requirements must catch up with technology.”
Charlton’s policy recommendations are to:
- Require all reporting entities to provide data electronically whenever possible.
Benefits include more timely case reporting, enhanced patient privacy, more complete reporting, and significant labor savings.
- Add provisions for cost-sharing mechanisms.
Nearly $2 million of the ICR budget is spent on cancer data collection by trained staff, which results in Iowa having the largest cost per case of all SEER registries.
- Clarify the definition of who is required to report.
Currently, as the Iowa Code is written, it is often interpreted that only hospitals have to report cancer cases. This leads to underreporting of cancers that can often be treated in a clinic or outpatient setting.
Improving Newborn Screening
Kelli Ryckman, associate professor of epidemiology, has long-standing research interests in genetics and the complications of preterm birth.
“My passion is finding ways to improve the care of preterm, low-birth-weight, and sick newborns in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit,” Ryckman says about her motivation to apply to the Policy Fellow Program.
Her project is to refine the newborn screening policy for babies in the NICU that will result in fewer false-positive screens.
“Through the program, I hope to build consensus based on the evidence and disseminate a uniform set of guidelines for newborn screening in the NICU that allows for better use of resources in Iowa and beyond,” Ryckman says.
State newborn screening programs are critical public health services aimed at screening every child born for specific genetic, endocrine, and metabolic conditions that, if left untreated, can lead to severe disability or death.
There are about 39,000 births in Iowa each year, and approximately 10 percent of all births in Iowa are preterm, low-birth-weight, or transferred to the NICU. This 10 percent also makes up over a third of the follow-up workload required for the newborn screening program due to the high false-positive rate in this population. Transfusions, parental nutrition, medications, and timing of the test in the NICU can affect the validity of the newborn screening test.
“It’s well-recognized that premature, low-birth-weight, or sick newborns are more likely to falsely screen positive for one or more of the newborn screening tests,” Ryckman says. “False positives have adverse impact on parents and require additional testing, which can add to the stress on the baby.”
To address these challenges, the Clinical and Laboratory Standards Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving clinical laboratory testing quality, developed a guideline for screening preterm, low-birth-weight, and sick newborns in 2009. Recent surveys have shown that despite the recommendations, many physicians caring for newborns in the NICU are unaware of its existence and that only 25 percent of states have adopted or were planning to adopt the recommendations, the American Academy of Pediatrics reports. Iowa has not yet adopted the recommendations.
Ryckman’s policy recommendation is to develop and disseminate a uniform set of guidelines to be implemented across Iowa. These guidelines will align with the national recommendations, provide for better utilization of resources, and decrease false positives in this special population of newborns.
Increasing Bicycle Safety
Cara Hamann, an associate in the Department of Epidemiology, developed an issue brief to highlight bicycling safety research, a topic that has received attention recently due to an increasing number of automobile and bicycle crashes in Iowa. In collaboration with the Iowa Bicycle Coalition, she also held a bicycle safety policy action forum of stakeholders in December 2016 and produced a forum recap document containing statewide key issues and action items.
“There were 340 bicycling injuries and 8 fatalities as a result of bicycle–motor vehicle collisions in Iowa in 2016,” says Hamann. “That’s up from 3 deaths in 2014, and 5 in 2015.”
Bicyclists have higher crash-related risk of injury and death due to their lack of physical protection, slow speed, and size differential compared to other roadway users. In alignment with the Iowa Bicycle Coalition 2017 legislative initiatives, Hamann supports several changes in Iowa code to make bicycling safer.
Require motorists to change lanes when passing bicyclists
Motorists hitting bicyclists from behind have accounted for about half of fatal bicycle crashes in Iowa over the past five years, Hamann says. Penalties assessed to motorists at fault in these fatal crashes are generally a traffic ticket with an enhanced penalty of a $1,000 fine and six-month license revocation. A measure to require vehicles to change lanes to pass bicyclists passed both the Senate and House sub-committees (HF 513, SF 450), but did not advance further.
Increase penalties and make distracted driving a primary offense
Most Iowa drivers don’t receive charges in bicycle–motor vehicle crashes, regardless of fault. Two bills that increase penalties were passed during the 2017 legislative session and signed into law by Gov. Branstad. One bill (SF 234) changes hand-held electronic communication (writing, sending, or viewing electronic messages) from a secondary to a primary offense and will go into effect starting July 1. However, this new law still allows drivers to use hand-held devices to make phone calls or check GPS directions. The second bill (SF 444) increases penalties to allow drivers to be charged with reckless driving when their hand-held device use causes a fatality. This type of charge is a Class C felony.
Increase appropriations for bicycling infrastructure
Results from a study of 294 sites in Iowa suggest that bicycle lanes and shared lane markings can reduce crash risk by as much as 60 percent. In a sample of Iowa drivers, shared lane markings improved driver positioning during overtaking, especially among older drivers.
“I was motivated to apply to this program to develop skills to translate my research into tangible products to be used for policy change and real impacts on safety,” says Hamann. “I want to use this opportunity to draw attention to bicycle safety and complement the current grassroots efforts underway in the bicycling community.”
Portraits by John Choate
This story originally appeared in the spring 2017 issue of InSight.
The Business Leadership Network collaborates with Iowa’s smaller communities to address health needs.
At one community forum hosted by the Business Leadership Network, an industry leader commented that it was not uncommon for as many as 15 percent of his employees to be sick on any given day. From his individual perspective, the business owner had no way to know if this was part of a trend rep-resenting a community-wide health concern. He didn’t know if other business or the local schools were experiencing similar absences, for instance. And without knowing the cause of the higher numbers, how could he hope to fix the situation?
Finding and addressing the roots of community health issues is a central goal of the Business Leadership Network (BLN). Founded in 2011 through the Iowa Institute of Public Health Research and Policy, the BLN and the grants program it oversees is intended to foster collaboration in Iowa’s smaller communities to tackle areas of identified community health need.
Gathering Community Input
A key to the program, says Tara McKee, coordinator of the BLN, are community forums that foster conversation and help leaders discern patterns and needs.
“We start with a planning group,” says McKee of the process that goes into organizing a forum, “including the chamber of commerce and other business owners, the schools and the nearest community college, United Way, bankers, hospital administrators, and local public health officials. We ask them about the most immediate public health needs in the community, and from there, we narrow to three or four topics.” To date, topics of interest have included food insecurity, diabetes, and dental care.
During the forums, community experts present on the chosen topics, while UI College of Public Health faculty and staff provide relevant research and examples of successes from other communities. Beyond this collaborative sharing of knowledge, McKee says the forums are vital networking opportunities at which local leaders find others with common concerns. That business owner with the high absentee rate, for instance, could compare notes with a county public health official, or connect with a UI faculty member who studies absenteeism.
Partnering for Success
The grant program, which is in its second year, adds another layer. Not only do the BLN Community Grants provide financial support, but the program also requires partnership in order to qualify for funding.
Athletics for Education and Success in Fort Dodge has been awarded funding in both cycles of the BLN grant. Charles Clayton, CEO of the nonprofit that was founded in 2004 to provide more after-school athletic, mentoring, and educational opportunities to young people, says the grant has been helpful in gaining more partners. “People are more likely to jump on board as a result of our work with the University of Iowa,” he says. New partners include the Fort Dodge Police, who are teaching an exercise class, and coaches from the local public schools, who are volunteering their time as referees.
After receiving the BLN grant last year, the nonprofit was able to expand weekend activities for kids. Hearing from many of the participants’ parents that they wished they had more access to fitness and athletic opportunities, Clayton and his team applied for the second year of the BLN grants and is now offering weekend family sports activities, such as dodgeball and volleyball, as well as fitness classes aimed particularly at single mothers.
Making the Most of Meals
In southeastern Iowa, the United Way of Wapello County is using its BLN grant award to extend a burgeoning program intended to help families learn easy, healthy cooking skills based on available and affordable food items. Via the grant, 25 families monthly are receiving free Crock-Pots. During a monthly class led by a registered dietician from the local Hy-Vee grocery store, participants make three meals, which they can take with them, and receive recipes for their slow cookers.
While many families rely on the local food pantry, they tend to gravitate toward easy foods, such as frozen pizzas and pasta. The Crock-Pot program will help them take raw ingredients, including fresh vegetables, dried legumes, and various meats, and create healthy meals that will extend the food and also provide greater nutrition. The recipes are specially designed to be easily edited for changing ingredients. A turkey chili, for example, can be made entirely vegetarian to reflect the availability of beans at the food pantry, or venison can be substituted during hunting season.
“We are hoping to challenge the assumption that everyone in our community is fed,” says Blaire Siems, director of the United Way of Wapello County and point person for the grant. She adds that, “Twenty-five percent of the children in Wapello County are hungry, so there’s a pretty good chance the parents are hungry, too.”
The cooking classes and the families they serve are but one thread in the complex tapestry of a community’s health, but the BLN grants are built on the belief that strengthening such threads is instrumental in supporting the health of the entire community.
This story originally appeared in the spring 2017 issue of InSight.
Watch a video from United Way of Wapello County that highlights the Crock-Pot cooking classes that were partially funded by the Business Leadership Network’s community grant program. The segment starts at the 3:43 mark.
Researchers are increasingly studying how people’s social connections affect poverty and health inequalities. However, little is known about how a family’s social relationships – who they know and what organizations they belong to – contribute to children’s health in low- and middle-income countries such as India, especially when it comes to addressing inequalities in child nutrition.
A recent study led by William Story, University of Iowa assistant professor of community and behavioral health, examined how different forms of social capital may mitigate as well as sustain or reproduce socioeconomic disparities in child underweight. The researchers define social capital as “household members’ actual or potential resources inherent within personal and organization-based networks that can be used for pursuing individual or collective goals.”
For example, a household may belong to community associations, clubs, or religious groups or have ties to influential individuals such as medical professionals, teachers, or government officials. In the context of child nutrition, these social connections may provide immediate access to necessities such as food, informational resources (e.g., parenting advice), and medical services to overcome socioeconomic constraints.
Story, along with his colleague Richard Carpiano, a sociology professor from the University of British Columbia, analyzed data on 9,008 rural-dwelling children from the 2005 India Human Development Survey. They examined how socioeconomic status shapes household access to and child health benefits from three different forms of social capital located inside and outside the community.
“We found that higher household wealth is associated with greater access to social capital,” says Story. “Additionally, we found that social capital can benefit poorer households in the absence of other resources. However, wealthier households can use social capital to further improve child health and, in some cases, reproduce child health inequalities.”
The study, published in the May 2017 issue of Social Science & Medicine, can be used to guide future research on social capital and disparities in child nutrition and health, and to inform the design of effective interventions in low- and middle-income countries.
Researchers at the UI College of Public Health will use a “collaboratory” approach for two projects that tackle public health concerns. Funded by the Iowa Institute of Public Health Research and Policy (IIPHRP), the first project will investigate health risks from exposure to insecticides, and the second will work to improve health outcomes for low-birth-weight and premature children.
“A collaboratory is a creative group process designed to solve complex problems,” says Vickie Miene, interim director of the IIPHRP. “The process generates the opportunity for new organizational networks to form. This approach expands the scope, scale, and impact of public health research.”
The projects, which were selected through a competitive application process, provide an opportunity to gather collaborators from different backgrounds and disciplines around a topic to develop an innovative research proposal. A successful collaboratory stimulates an aspirational research proposal such as a large research service or center grant that bolsters and builds upon areas of research closely linked to the college’s three collective areas of excellence: rural health, comparative effectiveness research, and community engagement. The collaboratory leverages existing strengths within the college, while fostering new collaborations within and outside the University of Iowa.
Human Exposure and Health Risks from Neonicotinoid Insecticides
Bill Field, professor of occupational and environmental health, is the leader of the Collaboratory to Identify Human Exposure and Health Risks from Neonicotinoid Insecticides. Neonicotinoids are a relatively new class of insecticide, but have become the most widely used class of agricultural insecticides in the world.
Historically, neonicotinoid insecticides have been viewed as ideal replacements for more toxic compounds, such as organophosphates, due in part to their perceived limited potential to impact the environment and human health. Within the agricultural sector, they are preferred over other pesticides for several reasons, including their ability to be applied using a variety of methods; lower toxicity in birds, fish, and mammals; and high selectivity and potency for insects.
Few studies have been conducted to characterize human exposure to neonicotinoids or the insecticides’ potential health risks. The collaborative team will develop the infrastructure and preliminary data required to investigate the emerging potential risks of neonicotinoid exposure.
To the researchers’ knowledge, the collaborative is the first group in the U.S. to directly evaluate the potential human exposure of neonicotinoid insecticides. The study is also the first to assess neonicotinoid insecticide contamination in private wells used for drinking water, and the first to validate biomarkers necessary for future neonicotinoid-human health investigations.
Members of the team include: Wei Bao, MD, PhD; Susie Dai, PhD; Manuel Gadogbe, PhD; Michelle Hladik, PhD; Christopher Jones, PhD; Dana Kolpin, MS; Hans-Joachim Lehmler, PhD; Bob Libra, MS; Charles Lynch, MD, PhD; Keith Schilling, PhD; Darrin Thompson, MPH; John Vargo, PhD; and Peter Weyer, PhD.
The collaborative has also received letters of support from the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, Heartland Center for Occupational Health and Safety, Agricultural Health Study, Environmental Health Sciences Research Center, the Iowa Registry for Congenital and Inherited Disorders, Iowa Center for Agricultural Safety and Health, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, State Hygienic Laboratory at the University of Iowa, and U.S. Geological Survey.
Iowa Perinatal Health Research Collaborative
Kelli Ryckman, associate professor of epidemiology, is the leader of the Iowa Perinatal Health Research Collaborative (IPHRC). The central mission of the IPHRC is to develop a network of perinatal care providers and public health professionals working to improve the health outcomes of children born low birth weight (LBW) and/or preterm through innovative and multidisciplinary research initiatives.
Advances in neonatal intensive care have drastically reduced perinatal mortality related to LBW and/or preterm births. In infants born before 27 completed weeks of gestation, there is a 65% chance of survival and a 56% chance of survival without severe impairment, nationally. In Iowa, survival without severe impairment is even higher.
Follow-up of “high risk” infants is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics; however, standard guidelines are lacking on how long follow-up should occur and which infants qualify as “high risk.” Individuals identified for further follow-up widely varies based on the resource availability, and children who may benefit from resources or specialized programs are undoubtedly missed or excluded. This underscores the need for perinatal research collaboratives that bring together providers, public health care professionals, and families to identify outcomes and health care utilization gaps for children born LBW and/or preterm.
The project will focus on three intersecting thematic areas:
- The Database Development thematic area will establish a statewide database of children born LBW and/or preterm that provides a platform for outcomes research, quality improvement initiatives, and interventions.
- The Health Services and Outcomes thematic area will develop a hospital services and outcomes data source to better understand the health care needs and outcomes in this population of Iowa children.
- The Family and Community Engagement thematic area will engage families in research initiatives and provide and promote existing resources for families.
Team members include Mary Charlton, assistant professor of epidemiology; John Dagle, professor of pediatrics; and Lane Strathearn, professor of pediatrics and co-director of the University of Iowa Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. In addition, graduate students Allison Momany and Nichole Nidey will contribute to this work.