November 15, 2018
Victoria Persky, M.D., is passionate about creating healthier communities in Chicago by addressing exposures and health disparities. A professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), Persky’s involvement in environmental health research over the years has been driven by community needs.
Persky currently co-leads the Community Outreach and Engagement Core within the NIEHS-funded Chicago Center for Health and Environment (CACHET), a partnership between UIC and the University of Chicago. In that role, she engages with underserved minority communities in Chicago to identify and address potential environmental hazards of concern.
She also engages with Chicago communities through her research, which focuses on both asthma and hormonal effects of environmental factors. “It is important to listen to people in the community to understand what the big issues are,” said Persky. “Then it’s my job, as a researcher, to try to find ways to address those issues.”
In response to community concerns about asthma, Persky and her team have documented wide racial disparities in the incidence and severity of the disease in Chicago. Her group has linked increased asthma to prenatal polychlorinated biphenyl exposure and stressful life events among other factors.
In addition to her research, Persky worked part-time at a community health center in West Chicago for most of her career. “That gave me a unique insight into the problems in underserved communities and how it could be integrated with the kind of research I was doing,” said Persky.
Through that experience, she learned that community members themselves were an important part of community outreach and engagement. She developed one of the earliest community-based peer educator programs in Chicago, aimed at decreasing environmental risk factors for asthma. This Community Asthma Prevention Program focuses on reducing the high rate of asthma hospitalization and mortality in low-income and African-American Chicago neighborhoods.
Linking Pollutants to Hormone Effects
Her community-based research has also focused on the effects of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) on the endocrine system, the series of glands in the body that produce and secrete hormones. She has worked with a variety of populations to examine these effects. Among these groups, she found that exposure to POPs impacted hormones in employees at a capacitor manufacturing plant and in adults consuming high levels of Great Lakes fish contaminated with POPs.
Persky now leads a research project to examine the effects of POP exposure on hormones and diabetes in a diverse Latino adult population. The study builds on the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos, an ongoing cohort of 16,415 multi-ethnic Hispanics in Chicago, San Diego, New York, and Miami. The team is measuring biological markers in blood to examine whether exposure to a range of POPs could be affecting hormone and immune pathways, which may be linked to changes in glucose regulation associated with diabetes.
Addressing Disparities in Southeast Chicago
Through the CACHET Community Engagement Core, Persky works with community members and organizations in Southeast Chicago to identify environmental concerns and communicate research findings. She also serves as a liaison between CACHET researchers and the community.
The Southeast Chicago industrial corridor has a history of environmental concerns including dumping of petroleum coke (a byproduct of oil refining), high levels of manganese, and metal recycling
Persky is partnering with the Southeast Environmental Task Force, a community-based organization in Chicago, and NPR’s StoryCorps to collect stories that give a sense of the history of the area with respect to residents’ experiences with community and environmental health issues.
“Collective storytelling can be a way of building a sense of community and shared vision that can strengthen collaborative efforts like those of interest to the CACHET Community Engagement Core,” said Persky.
They also plan to develop a mobile app in response to community requests. “If they identify a problem in their community, such as a dumped pile of industrial waste, they will be able to log it with the app,” Perskey added. “We plan to aggregate that information so people can see what others are concerned about throughout their communities.”