April 19, 2019
Courtney Carignan, Ph.D., knows the importance of community input in environmental health research and has shaped her work to meet the needs and concerns of communities. Carignan, an assistant professor at Michigan State University (MSU), has measured contaminants and assessed health effects for a wide range of populations including infertile couples, pregnant women, infants, new mothers, office workers, gymnasts, and communities exposed to contaminated drinking water.
Responding to Community Concerns
Her work with communities began during her first job out of college coordinating response to trichloroethylene contamination in drinking water in a rural Pennsylvania community.
“I got to know the people in the community and talk with them about their questions and concerns,” Carignan said. “From that experience, I resolved to find a way to better respond to and assist exposed communities.”
Now at MSU, Carignan is working with communities in New England and Michigan to characterize PFAS exposures and understand potential health effects from exposure in drinking water. PFAS are manufactured chemicals used in products for stain and water resistance, as well as in foams for fighting fuel fires. They have contaminated the drinking water of over 6 million Americans including that of several communities near where she is working. After PFAS contamination was discovered in these communities, Carignan started using her research to help answer community questions about the extent of the exposure and how it may be affecting the health of children.
“I’m currently investigating the effects of PFAS from contaminated drinking water on children’s immune systems and helping create an educational resource for exposed communities,” she said. “I’m also providing technical assistance for communities here in Michigan, as well as for the state health department.”
Carignan is part of a new NIEHS Research to Action grant focused on links between PFAS exposure and impaired vaccine response and other effects on the immune system in children, in collaboration with Northeastern University professor Phil Brown, Ph.D., and Laurel Schaider, Ph.D., of the Silent Spring Institute. Working in two communities who have experienced PFAS contamination in their drinking water, the researchers are measuring PFAS and markers of immune response in blood and interviewing community members to document experiences of affected communities. They are also developing an online network with resources for community education and engagement.
Unique Insight Into Gymnast Exposures
Carignan also has an ongoing project focused on assessing and reducing exposures to flame retardants in gymnasts. This work started when she was an NIEHS-funded doctoral student at Boston University under the guidance of Tom Webster, Ph.D., where she worked on a project to examine flame retardant exposures in office workers.
“From that work, I learned that flame retardants were used in polyurethane foam,” Carignan said. “As a former gymnast, I became concerned that flame retardants may be used in the foam of gymnastics training equipment, including the loose foam pit and landing mats.”
Most gyms contain a large pit filled with hundreds of foam polyurethane blocks, which provide a soft landing for gymnasts learning new acrobatic moves. Carignan initiated a small study to examine this potential exposure. She found that female gymnasts in her study, who were training at a collegiate gym in the eastern United States, had four to six and a half times more flame retardants in their blood compared to the general U.S. population. She also found that handwipe samples from the gymnasts after practice contained two to three times more flame retardants than before practice. Extremely high levels of flame retardants in dust, air, and foam from the gym suggested that the foam blocks were an important source of exposure.
Based on these findings, she started thinking about how to reduce exposure for gymnasts and collaborating with gymnasts, gym owners, and suppliers to understand the sources of flame retardants in gyms and ways to reduce exposure. Carignan started the Gymnast Flame Retardant Collaborative to facilitate communication between research scientists, fire safety experts, equipment manufacturers, and the gymnastics community.
“The collaborative provided a mechanism to engage with the gymnastics community,” Carignan said. “By forming a group, we were able to discuss the problem and find ways to solve it together.”
With support from the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Carignan led an Intervention Study to see the changes flame retardant exposure in gymnastics training facilities when foam pits are replaced with flame retardant-free foam. Through this study, in collaboration with several other researchers including Heather Stapleton, Ph.D. an associate professor at Duke University, she observed a five-fold decline in flame retardant exposure for gymnasts. In collaboration with fire safety experts, they were also able to provide a check list for gyms describing how to meet all fire safety requirements and assure fire safety in gyms without the need for flame retardants in the foam.
Investigating Important Exposures in Communities
“My research focus is motivated by concerns of the communities I work with, loved ones who have encountered infertility, and as a woman, parent, and conscientious consumer,” Carignan said. She has also been part of several other studies focused on exposures and health. For example, as part of her postdoctoral work, Carignan worked on an NIH-funded study led by Russ Hauser, M.D., Sc.D., where she discovered an association between organophosphate flame retardants in urine and negative in vitro fertilization (IVF) outcomes in women. Her publication describing these links was chosen as an NIEHS 2017 Paper of the Year.
In support of her innovative approach to research and engagement, Carignan was named as one of 20 Pioneers under 40 in Environmental Public Health by the Collaborative on Health and the Environment. She was chosen for her accomplishments in driving environmental health science in new directions and promoting work that will protect the health of children, families, and communities.
“I’m really proud to be named among colleagues that I admire so much.” Carignan said. “The award helped me feel that the extra effort it takes to translate research into action is valued by the environmental health community.”