August 22, 2018

Catherine Karr and child

Karr helps a child use a device to measure respiratory health at the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic in Toppenish, Washington.
(Photo courtesy of Lisa Younglove)

Catherine Karr, M.D., Ph.D., is working to improve children’s health using a community engaged approach. A recent article in The Lancet lauds her for her accomplishments.

Karr is someone who “personifies the best of a new breed of physician-scientists that are patient-centered, community-centered, and justice-centered,” wrote Ruth Etzel, M.D., Ph.D., director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Children’s Health Protection.

Karr directs the Clinical and Translational Services Unit (CTSU) within the Interdisciplinary Center for Exposures, Diseases, Genomics and Environment (EDGE) at the University of Washington (UW). Her research focuses on pediatric respiratory health, especially among farmworkers and their families in Native American and Latino communities in Washington State’s Yakima Valley. She has been identifying links between emissions from industrial-scale dairy farms, indoor use of wood stoves, and crop production with worsening asthma in children.

Karr also explores strategies to improve children’s respiratory health through asthma education and the use of indoor air cleaners. Her NIEHS-funded Home Air in Agriculture - Pediatric Intervention Trial (HAPI) focuses on children with poorly controlled asthma who live near crop production or dairy operations in Yakima Valley. “We couldn’t change community-wide [air pollution] sources overnight, but we wondered if combining a state-of-the-art asthma education program with use of indoor portable air cleaners could lead to better health for these children,” she told The Lancet.

Karr believes that building stakeholders’ understanding of the link between health and the environment is an important step in improving public health. “We are still not very good at communicating the pay-off of healthy environments on population health to key decision makers in government,” she said. “Doctors also need to know more about the role of environment in their patient’s health. It is both part of prevention and sometimes cure.”

At UW, Karr is a pediatric environmental medicine specialist, environmental epidemiologist, and professor of pediatrics and environmental and occupational health sciences. She is also director of the Northwest Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit and leader of an epidemiological pregnancy cohort project with the NIH Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) Program.