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Your Environment. Your Health.

Using Community-Engaged Research to Study the Health Impacts of Poor Air Quality in Rural Agricultural Communities

DERT Stories of Success

Catherine Karr, M.D., Ph.D.

Catherine Karr

“Receiving the PECASE award is an incredible honor, and is really a tribute to our entire team and collaborators. They are truly the reason why our work has been successful, and it is so rewarding to have this acknowledgement that our collective work is recognized and valued,” said Karr.
(Photo courtesy of Catherine Karr)

Catherine Karr, M.D., Ph.D., was recently named as a recipient of the 2017 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) award, which is the highest honor given by the U.S. government to early career scientists and engineers. The award recognizes commitment to scientific leadership, public education, and community-engaged research. Karr was nominated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for her community-engaged research approach focused on environmental allergens and children’s respiratory health in rural populations.

Karr, a pediatric environmental medicine specialist and environmental epidemiologist at the University of Washington, first became interested in children’s environmental health while volunteering as a teacher for the Peace Corps in West Africa. In this role, she witnessed firsthand the adverse health effects of poor environmental conditions on her students, and became dedicated to pursuing a career aimed at addressing these issues. “The adversity presented by those environmental conditions were so palpable that it really got me thinking about the link between the environment and children’s health, and how to address these problems both at the individual and the community level,” said Karr.

Translating research to action with community-based participatory research

Karr with Asthma Patient

Karr coaches a patient through an asthma test at the clinic.
(Photo courtesy of Catherine Karr)

Karr’s research is focused primarily on air quality and asthma in children. “Most people think of air pollution coming from cars, trucks, and industrial sources. As a result, almost all of the research that has been done to date on environmental exposures and children’s respiratory health has been done in urban settings,” Karr noted. Interestingly, Karr and her team have shown that air quality in the Yakima Valley, a rural agricultural region of Washington State, was actually worse than in urban Seattle. “It turns out that agricultural production, large animal operations, and wood burning contribute to poor air quality in rural areas. We also demonstrated that particulate matter and ammonia, which we used as a surrogate marker of exposure for agricultural activities in the region, resulted in worse health outcomes for children with asthma. These children represent a vulnerable portion of the population.”

Karr is the principal investigator for a NIEHS Research to Action grant through the Partnerships for Environmental Public Health (PEPH) program. This grant aims to reduce residential indoor exposure to asthma-causing pollutants for Latino children in the Yakima Valley. This grant utilizes a community-based participatory approach to investigate the effectiveness of in-home education and high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) portable air cleaner interventions to improve air quality and health outcomes in children with asthma.

Using team-science to better understand children’s environmental health

“Much of our work would not be possible without an agency and funding mechanism that understands the value of community engaged research. The PEPH program recognizes the time investment that is required to make community relationships successful and to build the infrastructure within the community to be able to participate fully. The PEPH community is also incredibly valuable for sharing lessons learned and successful strategies that are really pushing the field forward, and making our collective work more impactful and solutions-oriented,” said Karr.

Karr is also the recipient of over $1.6 million in funding from the NIH Office of the Director to unify three diverse pregnancy cohorts (TIDES, GAPPS, and CANDLE) into a larger study called PATHWAYS. “This is a really exciting new initiative from NIH aimed at using team science to address key children’s health issues from environmental exposures. Our team is looking to leverage existing data from the three pregnancy cohorts, and to coordinate at the consortium level to determine what key data and information should be collected moving forward. Ultimately, this will create a unified platform to support multi-cohort efforts which would help us answer complex questions about environmental exposures and human health,” said Karr.

This collaborative study conducted by Karr and four other lead researchers, the PATHWAYS study, will explore how chemical and non-chemical stressors during pregnancy are related to changes in gene expression in the placenta and to changes in children’s health into middle childhood. Karr and her team will focus primarily on air pollution, stress and phthalate exposure during pregnancy and how they may influence airway and neurodevelopmental health. The PATHWAYS study is part of the Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) Program, which currently funds 57 institutions to investigate how exposure to a range of environmental factors from conception through early childhood influence’s children’s health through adolescence.

Relevant publications

Loftus, C, Yost MG, Sampson P, Arias G, Torres E, Vasquez VB, Bhatti P, Karr CJ. 2015. Regional PM2.5 and asthma morbidity in an agricultural community: A panel study. Env Research. Environ Res 136:505-12. [Abstract]

Loftus C, Yost M, Sampson P, Torres E, Arias G, Breckwich Vasquez V, Hartin K, Armstrong J, Tchong-French M, Vedal S, Bhatti P, Karr C. 2015. Ambient Ammonia Exposures in an Agricultural Community and Pediatric Asthma Morbidity. Epidemiology 26(6):794-801. [Abstract]

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