February 20, 2019
Kim Harley, Ph.D., reproductive epidemiologist, is passionate about improving environmental health literacy, training, and leadership skills in Latino youth of Salinas, CA.
California’s Salinas Valley is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the nation, with annual revenues exceeding $4 billion per year. According to Harley, more than 9 million pounds of agricultural pesticides are applied to crop fields in the Salinas Valley per year.
An Associate Director of the NIEHS-funded Center for Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS) study, Harley leads projects that utilize community-based participatory research approaches to address pesticide and other environmental exposures experienced by immigrant farmworker women and their children living in the Salinas Valley. In other words, she works with community residents at every stage of the research process -- from defining the research questions to collecting data, analyzing and communicating results and implementing interventions.
Harley has been committed to the CHAMACOS study since it began in 1998, while she was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkley.
“The CHAMACOS study was funded during my M.P.H. and I was really excited about the possibility of working on the study as part of my Ph.D., which is why I applied to the Epidemiology program at Berkeley. I joined Drs. Brenda Eskenazi and Asa Bradman when they were first starting the study,” said Harley.
CHAMACOS is the longest running longitudinal birth cohort study of women and children in a farmworker community, containing years of data characterizing the effects of environmental exposures on children’s neurodevelopment, behavior, and other health outcomes and amassing hundreds of thousands of biospecimens. As research participants transitioned from children into adolescents, new questions and ideas concerning the study arose from Harley and her team. This led to the formation of the study’s youth council.
The CHAMACOS Youth Community Council
In 2010, Harley helped establish the CHAMACOS Youth Council (YC) in collaboration with partners from Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas, a local network of community health clinics. This leadership group trains 10 to 15 Latino youth in research design and implementation, promotes environmental health literacy, and engages them in advocacy and outreach.
“Our youth council work started with funding from NIEHS, so we are really proud and grateful to NIEHS for starting and believing in this project,” said Harley.
To date, Harley has worked as the principal investigator to oversee several successful research projects led by the YC, including the Health and Environmental Research in Make-Up of Salinas Adolescents (HERMOSA) Study and the Chamacos of Salinas Evaluating Chemicals in Homes & Agriculture (COSECHA) Study, each of which was 3 years long. The vast majority go on to college. A new cohort of the YC is currently working on a project examining Latina’s exposures to potentially hormone disrupting or carcinogenic chemicals in cleaning products.
Youth Participatory Action Research
According to Harley, youth engagement in participatory science and evaluation requires dedicated research and community partners. These partners assist with strategic planning, devote adequate time for learning and training, revise and critique research design strategies, recruit participants, interpret findings, and translate these findings into actions. Shared decision making is also an integral part of youth research, ranging from initial decisions on the research concept and study design to the final decisions on dissemination and intervention. This process empowers youth researchers to lead, develop ownership and become fully vested in the study.
Youth-engaged participatory science and evaluation also provides positive professional development opportunities for youth, improved self-esteem, as well as exposure to environmental research and institutes of higher education. Often these youth develop research skills and leadership abilities, which empower many to pursue careers in public health and environmental law.
“We are really interested in training the next generation of environmental health leaders in the Salinas farm worker community,” said Harley.
The HERMOSA Study
The first YC-led project Harley oversaw with her community partner, Kimberly Parra, was the HERMOSA study. The study examined 100 Latina adolescent’s exposures to endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in cosmetics and beauty products. EDCs are molecules, natural or synthetic, that mimic, block or interfere with the function of hormones in the body.
This three year study, funded by the California Breast Cancer Research Program, was the first to demonstrate that choosing personal care products labeled free of phthalates, parabens, triclosan and benzophenone-3 (BP-3), can significantly reduce personal exposure to some EDCs.
The YC under the direction of Harley, has communicated these scientific findings to both local and national communities through major news broadcasts and educational materials. Efforts by the YC to reduce exposure to EDCs have also included: writing petitions on media platforms, writing letters to CEOs of major drugstore chains, creating DIY beauty recipes, educating policy makers in Sacramento, and presenting scientific data to the California Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The COSECHA Study
In 2016, the YC in collaboration with Harley and community partner, Jose Camacho, conducted the COSECHA Study. This three-year project funded by the California Breast Cancer Research Program, assessed pesticide exposure in Latina adolescents living in Salinas Valley. The YC members collected all data from 100 participants including: residential dust samples, urine samples, GPS coordinates, nearby field crop verification, environment sampling bracelets and questionnaires.
Research findings were analyzed by Harley and her Berkeley colleagues and, with the help of James Nolan, the center’s Community Outreach Coordinator, youth researchers translated scientific discoveries into health education activities, including developing a Radio Novella Series on how to protect oneself and family from pesticides. The series has aired on 10 radio stations throughout the Central Valley, Eastern Washington and Oregon. Youth researchers have also distributed custom made doormats to individuals within the agricultural community, which the research indicated may help reduce pesticide exposures in the home. Each mat was printed with simple tips for reducing take-home pesticide exposures. In addition, youth researchers have co-presented their discoveries at scientific meetings and conferences.
Household Cleaning Products Study
Again as principal investigator, Harley has begun an intervention study with a new cohort of YC members, geared towards understanding and reducing chemical exposure in cleaning products, among Latina moms living in Salinas Valley. Harley anticipates that the results from this study will be available within the next year or two.