NIEHS Researchers Uncover Unknowns of Urban Wildfires
When wildfires move into urban areas, they burn homes and buildings, releasing toxic chemicals into the environment. Yet little is known about how exposure to urban wildfires affects human health. NIEHS-funded researchers are uncovering the unknowns of urban wildfires to better understand and protect people from these complex exposures.
“We know what chemicals are in smoke from natural forest fires, but we don’t know what chemicals are released when homes and buildings burn in an urban wildfire. These structures can contain synthetic chemicals from cleaning products, insulation materials, particle board, pesticides, electronics, lead paint, and asbestos. As urban wildfires become more frequent, we need to understand what is in this chemical mixture, what new chemicals are formed when structures burn at extremely high temperatures, and how exposures affect health,” said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, Ph.D., who directs the Environmental Health Sciences Core Center at the University of California, Davis and leads the Wildfires and Health - Assessing the Toll on Northwest California (WHAT NOW California) project.
Investigating Unknown Exposures and Health Effects
Funded through the NIEHS Time-Sensitive Research program, WHAT NOW California examines potential physical and mental health effects from the October 2017 Sonoma County fires, which burned more than 5,000 structures. The research team surveyed nearly 6,000 residents about the respiratory and mental health issues they experienced during and in the immediate aftermath of the fires.
When a wildfire nearly eradicated towns like Paradise in November 2018, the team expanded the survey. According to Hertz-Picciotto, wildfire smoke exposed millions of people to some of the worst air pollution ever recorded in the U.S.
“Even people with no prior health conditions reported experiencing cough, wheezing, or an asthma attack. A sizable group was still reporting symptoms six or more months later,” said Hertz-Picciotto. “With further follow-up, we aim to determine whether a short-term exposure to heavy wildfire smoke can have long-lasting impacts on health.”
The researchers are also analyzing air and ash samples from affected communities and collecting urine, hair, and blood from residents to determine the chemicals to which people may have been exposed. “Overall, this study will provide critical information about needs, behaviors, and short- and long-term health effects that will assist health professionals, government agencies, and non-profit and service organizations better prepare for and respond to urban wildfires.”
Training Workers, Building Capacity
Funded by the NIEHS Worker Training Program, the Western Region Universities Consortium (WRUC) trains day laborers and domestic workers in California to protect themselves from the hazards they might encounter during wildfire cleanup in residential settings.
“Homeowners in wildfire-impacted areas hire day laborers and domestic workers soon after the fires subside to clean up ash, soot, and debris – both outside and inside the home,” said Linda Delp, Ph.D., director of the Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program at the University of California, Los Angeles and WRUC lead. “While many training efforts focus on first responders and the public, residential day laborers are often overlooked. We’re ensuring these workers understand the risks they may face during cleanup work and measures they can take to protect themselves.”
WRUC emphasizes the importance of partnering with local worker centers to build their training capacity because of the knowledge and trust they have with the day laborers. For example, WRUC works with the Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California (IDEPSCA), a community organization that has been educating and organizing day laborers and domestic workers in Los Angeles since the early 1990s.
“This is a predominantly immigrant, low-wage worker population with limited resources,” said Maegan Ortiz, executive director of IDEPSCA. “It’s important to educate these workers on a range of labor issues, including safety and health protections.”
IDEPSCA outreach teams visit day labor hiring centers, home improvement store parking lots, and street corners in wildfire-impacted areas of Los Angeles County to provide workers with information on hazards related to wildfire cleanup work, as well as protective equipment like disposable respirators.
“We’re pleased to support these critical ground-level efforts to promote safety for all workers impacted by wildfire disasters in our region,” added Delp.
Through these combined efforts, NIEHS-funded researchers are making important discoveries about how urban wildfires may affect health. Sharing this emerging information with residents and workers builds their knowledge of the chemicals they may be exposed to and how to protect themselves from exposures during and after a wildfire.
NIEHS Wildfire Resources and Disaster Preparedness App
The NIEHS Worker Training Program and its awardees created resources to protect the health and safety of those responding to wildfires.
- A Wildfire Response Training Tool helps workers understand the characteristics of wildfires and wildfire response and how to protect themselves from hazards associated with wildfire response, assessment, and cleanup activities.
- A wildfire companion booklet is a pocket guide for workers on-site.
- The NIEHS/CPWR Disaster Preparedness mobile app allows workers to access and download training resources on a variety of disaster-related topics.
New Course: Wildfire Smoke and Your Patients’ Health
A free, online course, Wildfire Smoke and Your Patients’ Health, is designed to help public health professionals learn about health effects associated with wildfire smoke and actions patients can take to reduce exposure. Created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the course includes sections on public health impacts of wildfire smoke, air quality and smoke, and reducing wildfire smoke exposure. The course takes about 45 minutes to complete and is intended for physicians, registered nurses, asthma educators, and others involved in clinical or health education. Continuing education credits are available.
Job Opportunity: General Pediatric Research Faculty, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center
The Division of General and Community Pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC) is seeking pediatric researchers to join a diverse, talented, multidisciplinary team of individuals. The division is interested in attracting researchers focused on population health and health equity, racism/discrimination, early childhood development, education, health services delivery, and environmental health.
The division is clinically productive with six primary care sites and four additional clinical service lines, including an Environmental Health and Lead Clinic, a Breastfeeding Medicine Center, a Comprehensive Health Evaluations for Cincinnati’s Kids (CHECK) Foster Care Center, and a Complex Care Center.
The ideal candidate should hold a Ph.D., Sc.D., Dr.P.H., M.D., or D.O. degree. Candidates with an M.D. or D.O. should be Board Certified / Board Eligible in General Pediatrics. Faculty would qualify for a position at the rank of assistant or associate professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. The faculty member is expected to pursue scholarly work and attain K- or R-level funding within the first 3 years of appointment, if not already externally funded. The faculty member is also expected to mentor trainees and junior faculty. See the job postings for more information (assistant professor: requisition #103701 and #103702; associate professor: requisition #103703).
SRP Featured in Environmental Communication Special Issue
A recent special issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health focuses on communication research and practice in the Superfund Research Program (SRP). The issue highlights new directions in environmental communication research and features studies conducted by SRP teams around the country. Grantees from SRP Centers at Dartmouth College; Michigan State University; Northeastern University; and the University of California, Davis authored publications. The issue also includes an article written by SRP staff on the importance of community engagement and research translation within the SRP.
New Chapter in A Story of Health Explores Cognitive Decline
The creators of A Story of Health, a free, interactive eBook, just released a new chapter on the connection between environmental exposures and cognitive decline. A Story of Health uses stories of fictional people, their families, and communities to explore risk factors for disease, as well as how to prevent disease and promote health and resilience. Produced by NIEHS grantees and partners, the chapter follows 72-year-old Sam and his family’s journey to figure out his recent cognitive decline. Sam and his family work with doctors to explore his lifespan from childhood environmental exposures to current social connections as they ask whether his “forgetfulness” is normal or something more serious.
Free continuing education (CE) credits are available for A Story of Health, which, in addition to cognitive decline, covers asthma, childhood leukemia, developmental disabilities, and reproductive health. Health care professionals can register for free CE credits through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Each story is accredited separately.
In our latest podcast, Why Dad’s Environment Before Conception Matters, learn how researchers are exploring preconception, particularly for fathers to be, as a critical window of susceptibility to harmful exposures. Plus, learn what you can do to improve your preconception health.
PEPH Grantee Highlight
In California, along the border with Mexico, where air quality is often poor, Luis Olmedo works to improve the health of people living there. As executive director of the environmental justice nonprofit Comité Cívico del Valle, Inc., he launched the Imperial County Community Air Monitoring Project. With support from NIEHS, his team and community members installed a network of 40 air pollution monitors around the county. They also create outreach materials, disseminate information to schools, and share research data with local decision makers.
“Through the monitoring network, people are aware of where they might be exposed to poor air quality. As a result, they can adjust their activities to improve their own health,” said Olmedo.
Supports collaborative research between Tribal Epidemiology Centers and extramural investigators on topics related to minority health and health disparities in American Indian / Alaska Native (AI/AN) populations.
Deadline: December 04, 2019
Supports investigator-initiated scientific meetings. NIEHS is interested in supporting meetings that will advance the field of environmental health sciences.
Deadline: December 12, 2019
Letter Requesting Permission to apply is required and must be received six weeks prior to the application receipt date. See the NIEHS conference grant webpage for information about the types of conferences and meetings the institute is interested in supporting, as well as LRP guidelines.
Encourages research to promote a greater understanding of the challenges faced by rural population groups for the development (or adoption/adaptation) of evidence-based interventions that can reduce health risks faced by rural Americans.
Deadline: December 13, 2019
Letter of Intent: Due 30 days prior to the application due date.
Encourages multidisciplinary projects to investigate the potential health risks of environmental exposures of concern to a community and to implement an environmental public health action plan based on research findings. Projects supported under this program are expected to employ community-engaged research methods to not only conduct research but also to seamlessly translate research findings into public health action. Check out the Research to Action Currently Funded Grantees webpage for a sense of the types of projects supported through this FOA.
Deadline: January 21, 2020
Letter of Intent: December 21, 2019
SCORE is a developmental program designed to increase the research competitiveness of faculty and the research base at institutions with an explicitly stated historical mission and/or a demonstrated track record within the previous 10 years of training and graduating students from backgrounds underrepresented in biomedical research. Eligible institutions must award science degrees to undergraduate (B.S. or B.A.) and/or graduate (M.S. or Ph.D.) students and have received less than $6 million per year of NIH R01 support (total costs) in each of the last 2 fiscal years. The Pilot Project Award (SC2) is for those who are at the beginning stages of a research career, applying for their first non-fellowship research award, and who are interested in testing a new idea or generating preliminary data.
Deadline: January 25, 2020
SCORE is a developmental program designed to increase the research competitiveness of faculty and the research base at institutions with an explicitly stated historical mission and/or a demonstrated track record within the previous 10 years of training and graduating students from backgrounds underrepresented in biomedical research. Eligible institutions must award science degrees to undergraduate (B.S. or B.A.) and/or graduate (M.S. or Ph.D.) students and have received less than $6 million per year of NIH R01 support (total costs) in each of the last 2 fiscal years. The Research Advancement Award (SC1) is for investigators with a track record of research activity who are seeking to enhance their research productivity to transition to non-SCORE support in a limited period.
Deadline: January 25, 2020
(R01 Clinical Trial Optional; R21 Clinical Trial Optional; R03 Clinical Trial Not Allowed). Supports innovative approaches to identifying, understanding, and developing strategies for overcoming barriers to the adoption, adaptation, integration, scale-up, and sustainability of evidence-based interventions, tools, policies, and guidelines. Conversely, there is a benefit in understanding circumstances that create a need to stop or reduce (“de-implement”) the use of interventions that are ineffective, unproven, low-value, or harmful. In addition, studies to advance dissemination and implementation research methods and measures are encouraged.
Deadline: February 05, 2020 (R01), February 16, 2020 (R03 and R21)
Letter of Intent: Due 30 days prior to the application due date.
Supports research that examines how health information technology adoption impacts minority health and health disparity populations in access to care, quality of care, patient engagement, and health outcomes.
Deadline: March 04, 2020
Supports research to advance our understanding of the impact of extreme weather and disaster events in aging human populations. With the companion FOA (PAR-19-249), which focuses on underlying mechanisms of aging utilizing animal models, these two FOAs will help to explicate the behavioral, biological, and socioecological processes that occur during extreme weather or disaster events that affect aging processes. Through the integration of the population studies and the companion mechanistic studies FOA, the goal is to improve the health and well-being of older adults via increased knowledge about extreme weather and disaster preparedness, response, and recovery.
Deadline: March 9, 2020
Letter of Intent: Due 30 days prior to the application due date.
Supports environmental health research in which an unpredictable event provides a limited window of opportunity to collect human biological samples or environmental exposure data. The program aims to understand the consequences of natural and human-caused disasters or emerging environmental public health threats in the U.S. and abroad.
Deadline: See the Funding Opportunity Announcement for application due dates.
The last day of retiring director Linda Birnbaum was celebrated with music, tributes, and — not to be left out — data.
The series explains how New Bedford Harbor became contaminated, research to understand health effects, and how community groups are helping.
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