Event Highlight: Fresh Ideas from the PEPH Meeting

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I was fortunate to get to attend this year’s PEPH meeting in March and spent two days networking with an amazing group of professionals. PEPH (Partnerships for Environmental Public Health) is a network of scientists, community members, educators, health care providers, public health officials, and policy makers working together to advance the impact of environmental public health research. PEPH is a program of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). Here are a few sparks of inspiration I brought home from the event:

  • Theater of the Oppressed expert John Sullivan of the University of Texas Medical Branch Center in Environmental Toxicology helped a group of 20 of us “non-actors” use our bodies to portray the health hazards of living in a neighborhood with trains and smokestacks. A dramatic way to engage folks in our work!
  • How can we effectively communicate our environmental public health message? Know our audience. Create a specific message. Build relationships in the community. Think strategically. Share materials. Take advantage of the web, emerging technologies, and social media (like our blog!) Use headlines, front-load the important stuff, use plain language. Everybody has information overload, so keep it short and sweet.
  • Build Capacity: Some researchers have room to grow when it comes to working with diverse communities; many IRBs need to develop a better understanding of how community-based participatory research (CBPR) is different from traditional research.
  • Many community partners are involved in PEPH, evidence that CBPR is important in NIEHS-funded research.
  • A few of the research topics we heard about at the meeting: Flame retardants, breast cancer, PCBs in the Arctic, GIS mapping, climate change, is Gulf seafood safe?

So glad to be a part of NIEHS’ commitment to outreach, education, community partnerships and environmental justice work!

                                                                                       -- Marilyn Hair

Focus on Ecogenetics: Men's Reproductive Health

A recent article published by a team of researchers led by CEEH investigator Sheela Sathyanarayana reports on a study looking at how genes and the environment interact to affect the development and physical characteristics of reproductive programming in male infants. In the article, A pilot study of the association between genetic polymorphisms involved in estrogen signaling and infant male genital phenotypes published in the May 14, 2012 issue of the Asian Journal of Andrology, Sathyanarayana and her team researched how genes and their alleles (different versions of the genes) are associated with particular phenotypes (observed physical characteristics) of infant male reproductive organs. Normal development of male reproductive systems in fetal stages depends on hormonal signaling and both genetic and environmental factors have been shown to affect this development. Birth defects in the male reproductive system are known to be risk factors for conditions such as testicular cancer and sperm abnormalities later in life. In the pilot study, the researchers found that polymorphisms in genes involved in estrogen signaling are associated with changes in genital measurements. In addition to this genotype/phenotype relationship, Sathyanarayana's team also explored how exposure to phthalates might further impact the gene/phenotype association to produce additional abnormalities in reproductive programming and phenotypes. Phthalates are a group of industrial chemicals used to make plastics more flexible. They are widely used in consumer products, such as toys, food packaging, shower curtains and personal care products. Although the researchers weren't able to find a statistically significant interaction between prenatal phthalate exposure, genetic variants and phenotypes, they attributed this to the relatively small sample size and emphasized that this is an important environmental exposure to consider in future studies. CEEH investigator Stephen Schwartz and CEEH researchers Fred Farin and Hui-Wen Wilkerson are co-authors on the paper.

- Sean Schmidt & Jon Sharpe