Center for Precision Environmental Health

Program in Population and Environmental Health Disparities Projects


Maternal and Infant Environmental Health Riskscape (MIEHR) Research Center (P50MD015496; PI: E. Symanski)

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) – through the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Health Human Development (NICHD) funded the Maternal and Infant Environmental Health Riskscape (MIEHR) Research Center in summer 2020. The center, a joint initiative of Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Southern University (TSU) and The University of Texas Health Science at Houston (UTHealth) McGovern Medical School, is a Center of Excellence on Environmental Health Disparities Research. The MIEHR Center is led by director Elaine Symanski at Baylor and co-director Kristina Walker Whitworth at Baylor. 

The MIEHR Center is focused on identifying key drivers of racial disparities in pregnancy outcomes, such a preterm birth and hypertensive disorders during pregnancy.  Through its two research studies, the MIEHR Center studies how chemical and non-chemical exposures at the individual and neighborhood level from the biological, physical, and social environments – collectively referred to as the riskscape – affect maternal and infant health. The Investigator Development Core (IDC) oversees a Pilot Project Program for post-doctoral fellows, clinical fellows and assistant professors at Baylor and TSU.  A Community Engagement and Dissemination Core (CEDC) engages with partners to seek their feedback on MIEHR activities and environmental issues of concern in their communities.

Exploring Pathways through which Structural Racism Impacts Children’s Environmental Health (UG3OD035544, Multi-PIs: K. Whitworth, E. Symanski, and T. Northrup)

Drs. Whitworth and Symanski, along with multi-PI Dr. Thomas Northrup at the McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, were funded through the national ECHO (Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes) Program to recruit a cohort of pregnant women in Houston with the ultimate goal of following their children through age 21 years.  The ECHO Program is interested in chemical and physical, lifestyle, and psychosocial exposures experienced during pregnancy and by children in the first five years of life. Researchers will collect data on how these exposures impact children with an emphasis on key pediatric outcomes including pre-, peri- and postnatal health, neurodevelopment, respiratory health, obesity, and positive health. The ECHO Program relies on data collected from individual cohort sites across the United States using a shared protocol.  Data collected at the Houston Cohort site will contribute to ECHO-wide analyses addressing a range of research questions related to environmental impacts on children’s health, including for example, how into structural racism and discrimination impacts pregnancy, potentially by amplifying the adverse impacts of chemical exposures on children’s health outcomes.  

Effects of an Intervention on Shipping-Related Air Pollution and Health (R01ES034095; Multi-PIs: E. Symanski and E.S. Park)

Among the more than 39 million people who live near ports in the United States are many residents of Houston, Texas, the fourth most populous city in the U.S. Houston is home to Port Houston, one of the busiest ports in the nation. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) estimated marine vessel diesel engines contributed more than 11,000 tons of nitrogen oxides (NOx), 300 tons of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and 1,800 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2) to air basins in Harris (home to Houston), Galveston, and Brazoria counties in 2014, which added to the region’s difficulty in meeting the national ambient air quality standards for O3 and PM2.5. Concerns about potential health effects for residents who live near ports and bear the greatest burden of ship emissions have been rising. The overarching goal of this research project is to evaluate the impact of the mandatory reduction of vessel fuel sulfur content in the North American Emission Control Area (NA ECA), that went into effect on January 1, 2015, on air quality and health. We hypothesize that total and cause-specific (non-accidental) mortality and hospital admissions associated with Port Houston shipping emissions exposures decreased in Harris County, TX, due to the policy and regulatory change to low sulfur fuel oil for marine vessels transiting the NA ECA. We are employing a spatially enhanced advanced source apportionment method (Bayesian spatial multivariate receptor modeling) that incorporates spatial correlation in multi-site multipollutant data into the estimation of source profiles and contributions, which enables the prediction of unobserved source-specific exposures at any location, monitored or not, and significantly reduces spatial misalignment errors. This project is led by Drs. Elaine Symanski (BCM) and Eun Sug Park (Texas A&M Transportation Institute). 

Impacts of structural racism on racial and ethnic disparities in perinatal health (R01HD111500, Multi-PIs: K. Whitworth and E. Symanski) 

Led by multi-PIs Drs. Whitworth and Symanski, the goal of this NICHD-funded project is to assemble pregnancy-related electronic health records (EHR) from major hospitals in the Texas Medical Center, interrogate EHRs to assess the independent effects of multiple metrics of structural racism on racial/ethnic disparities in maternal health outcomes, explore whether combined exposures to multiple domains of structural racism enhance disparities, and apply machine learning methods to identify key structural racism predictors of adverse perinatal health outcomes. This multi-institutional project brings together a transdisciplinary team with Drs. Hector Mendez and Howard Henderson leading teams of investigators at the UTHealth McGovern Medical School and the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University, respectively.

Source-specific multi-pollutant exposures and the neighborhood context in disparities in stillbirth (R01ES031990; PI: E. Symanski)

In a NIEHS-funded study, Dr. Symanski is working with multi-PI Dr. Eun Sug Park from Texas A&M Transportation Institute and colleagues to evaluate the impact of source-specific exposures to multiple air pollutants, which will be assessed using innovative Bayesian spatial multivariate receptor models, on risks of stillbirth and to evaluate disparities in effects due to neighborhood-level factors and race/ethnicity.   

Study of Cleaners in San Antonio: Immunologic and Inflammatory Responses to Total Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) Exposure or ELSA for its Spanish Translation (R01ES031063; multiple PI: K. Whitworth)

The ELSA study is funded by the NIEHS and led by Dr. Whitworth and multi-PIs at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) (D. Gimeno) and Temple University School of Public Health (I. Han).  Through an academic-community partnership with local community group, Domesticas Unidas, the ELSA study aims to quantify the burden of exposures to volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a type of air pollution, experienced by women working as domestic housecleaners in San Antonio, TX.  Most of these women are Hispanic or Latina women subject to numerous environmental and occupational hazards, including VOC exposure from potentially toxic chemicals in cleaning supplies as well as in their residential environment.  In addition, the ELSA study will explore associations between total personal exposure to VOCs and biomarkers of inflammation and oxidative stress in this population.

Fine Particulate Matter, Fetal Growth & Neurodevelopment: Examining Critical Windows of Susceptibility (R01ES028842; PI: K. Whitworth)

In 2019, Dr. Whitworth received R01 funding through the NIEHS Outstanding New Environmental Scientist (ONES) program to conduct a study title "Fine Particulate Matter, Fetal Growth & Neurodevelopment: Examining Critical Windows of Susceptibility".  This project represents the culmination of an international collaboration with investigators in Spain at ISGlobal, Gipuzkoa, and the University of Valencia using data from the INMA (INfancia y Medio Ambiente) project, a large population-based pregnancy cohort study in Spain.  The goals of this study are to utilize exposure estimates of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) from sophisticated satellite-based exposure model to inform potentially susceptible windows of exposure to PM2.5 on ultrasound measured fetal growth and cognitive and behavioral outcomes in early childhood.

Metal Air Pollution Partnership Solutions (MAPPS) (R01ES023563; PI: E. Symanski)

The MAPPS study was a community-based participatory research (CBPR) project with a primary goal of addressing resident concerns about metal aerosol emissions from metal recycling facilities in four low-income communities in Houston (i.e., the neighborhoods of Magnolia Park (two locations), South Park, and Fifth Ward/Northside) that are predominantly Hispanic and African American.  Key elements of the MAPPS project included: (1) promoting community engagement in research activities through a Community Advisory Board (CAB) comprised of neighborhood residents and metal recycling representatives, along with the research team (academics, Houston Health Department officials, and members of an environmental justice advocacy group); (2) sampling for metals in outdoor air at multiple locations in four neighborhoods; (3) conducting health risk assessments based on the air monitoring results; (4) assessing environmental health perceptions and needs through key informant interviews, focus groups and door-to-door community surveys; (5) translating and disseminating study findings; and (6) developing and implementing a public health action plan based on the results.

Children's Health and Research on Metals (CHARM) (R01ES023563S1; PI: E. Symanski)

The CHaRM Study, funded by a NIEHS supplement to the MAPPS study, was conducted in 2019 with the following goals: (1) Collect soil samples for analysis and comparison of metal concentrations between neighborhoods; (2) Recruit parents and children who live in MAPPS neighborhoods for a biomonitoring study of metal exposures among children; and (3) Assess questionnaire data to identify potential sources of exposure of children's urinary metal concentrations.