Gender Discrimination Poses Challenges for Construction Workers

Study participants fill out survey data.
  A worker who feels persistent stress in the workplace due to discrimination is unlikely to perform optimally. If they work a physically demanding job they may end up being injured or sick more often, and likely less efficient at their tasks.
Noah Seixas, a professor with the University of Washington’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences (DEOHS), has been interested in workplace discrimination for the last 10-15 years, especially as it pertains to underrepresented workers. “When you look at groups with higher risks of hazards you realize that hazards are inextricably linked to discrimination,” he explains.
Noah Seixas, professor and project co-lead.
It was through Nancy Simcox, Director of the University of Washington’s Continuing Education Programs for DEOHS, that Seixas was connected with Washington Women in Trades, a nonprofit group that works to promote and facilitate access for women in the skilled trades. Immediately he recognized women in construction as a vulnerable subpopulation. “The risks that women construction workers are exposed to are very wrapped up in discrimination. They’re less able to protect themselves from traditional construction hazards because of pressure to perform beyond their capacity, because they’re less likely to ask for help, and because they more often work alone.”
In an effort to help address the problem, Seixas obtained money from the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries’ Safety and Health Investment Projects (SHIP), for a study of workplace discrimination against women in the trades. The original focus of his grant was on studying safety risks affecting tradeswomen. After finding that women reported higher perceived stress and gender discrimination relative to men in the trades, the study evolved into a pilot mentorship program. 
The scope of the project expanded again when Anjum Hajat received support from the Medical Aid and Accident Fund to test whether biomarkers of stress showed similar patterns to the self-perceived stress results.
Anjum Hajat, professor and project co-lead.
Hajat is an assistant professor of Epidemiology. Her work focuses on chronic stress as it relates to poverty and financial instability. She uses a series of biomarkers in blood associated with the immune system and the system that regulates stress hormones to assess how long-term pressures affect people physiologically.
“I’d been wanting to work with Noah for a long time,” she explained, “to get a better understanding of how the biomarker piece fits into the broader intersection of health and equity in the workplace.” Hajat was more familiar with the research on race, but she said the issues that women in construction face are very similar. “There’s a constant vigilance that comes with having to face systemic discrimination. There’s the feeling that you need to be better than others to prove yourself against the assumptions that you’re not up to par. It’s what is called the “black tax” in other contexts.”  
Jessica Porter, a master’s student was brought in to help with the biomarker analysis after approaching Seixas for a project. “I think the most rewarding part of the project was looking at total worker health and realizing that harassment is an important exposure to assess outside of traditional exposures that you think about in the workplace,” she said a few days after successfully defending her thesis.
Jessica Porter, Master’s student who led the biomarkers analysis.
All told, 39 workers from the carpenters, sheet metal and pipe trades participated in the study by filling out surveys and providing blood samples. Analysis of the survey data showed strong gender differences in factors like sexual harassment, heightened vigilance and perceived stress. These differences, although meaningful, were not born out by the biomarkers data which showed no significant differences based on gender.
“It was a small study with mostly young, healthy people,” explained Hajat. “It should be considered a proof of concept. Now we know we can collect blood, centrifuge the samples and get them on ice all on site. It all worked really well, so hopefully next time we can get a bigger sample size.” The team is continuing to pursue funding for a larger study of biomarkers associated with workplace discrimination. Meanwhile, they hope to partner with the Sheet Metal Workers International Union for a five-year study to evaluate the impact of mentorship on women apprentices’ stress, safety, and retention.
The results of the study were shared with participants in two focus groups run by Hannah Curtis, the study coordinator and Orly Stampfer, a graduate student in DEOHS. “This was the third set of focus groups I’ve held with construction workers around issues related to workplace culture and women’s safety. It’s a refreshing break from academia that highlights the real impact of our work,” said Curtis. “I’m grateful to the participants for being so candid with us and sharing their stories,” added Stampfer. 
Hannah Curtis processing blood samples for biomarker analysis.
Feedback from the focus groups was used to create a summary of results that emphasized the gender differences in perceived stress and discrimination while also discussing the more ambiguous biomarkers data which showed no significant results of importance. The focus groups emphasized the value of union trainings and support groups for women. Reducing workplace stress for women can be expected to have many benefits for employers including better retention, better efficiency, fewer injuries and fewer sick days.
“It shouldn’t be a surprise,” said Hajat, “but I was taken aback by the candor and openness in the way women talk about discrimination in the workplace. I had hoped it wouldn’t be as bad as it is. It would be nice to see studies like this one create change in higher level policies.”
Curtis added that it’s reassuring to see the trades supporting studies like this one to help make the culture safer and more inclusive for underrepresented workers.

The EDGE Center is delighted to welcome BJ Cummings as its new Director of Community Engagement

The EDGE Center is delighted to announce the hire of BJ Cummings to take over management of Community Engagement under the direction of Kelly Edwards, Director of Community Engagement. Cummings has a long and illustrious history of engaging communities to advocate for better environmental health in the Duwamish River Valley.
In 2001 she founded the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, and most recently is the author of the upcoming book “A River Revealed – an environmental and social history of the Duwamish River.” In the interim she has co-authored several community health studies, including the Duwamish Valley Cumulative Health Impacts Anaysis and Duwamish River Superfund Cleanup Plan Health Impact Assessment. Cummings also served as the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance’s “Soundkeeper” from 1994–99, and as Sustainable Seattle’s Executive Director from 2016–18. She is principal of Community Environmental Services, a Seattle environmental consulting firm she founded in 2001.
            Cummings holds a Masters Degree in Environmental Geography from UCLA, and is the author and producer of numerous articles, books and documentary films on environment and development issues locally and throughout the Americas. Over the past two decades, Cummings has been recognized as a National River Network “River Hero,” a Sustainable Seattle “Sustainability Hero,” a King County Green Globe winner for Environmental Activism, a recipient of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance’s “Inspiration Award” and one of Seattle Magazine’s “10 most influential leaders.”
            We are very lucky to be able to welcome her to our staff.

Safeguarding Washington State Baristas

Washington state has long been known for its boutique coffee shops. But very little is known about the health risks of processing coffee for the baristas who work in them.
Recently, coffee processing has been shown to produce a potentially harmful chemical called diacetyl. Diacetyl is the chemical flavoring added to microwave popcorn that, in the early 2000s was associated with high rates of a rare disease known as “popcorn lung” among microwave popcorn producers. Popcorn lung damages the smallest airways of the lungs, interfering with the body’ ability to get oxygen.
Dr. Chris Simpson, a principal investigator with the University of Washington Interdisciplinary Center for Exposures, Diseases, Genomics and Environment (EDGE) explains how the link between diacetyl and coffee was discovered. “Following the clusters of cases with popcorn manufacturers, NIOSH [the Center for Disease Control’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health] realized that diacetyl was used in a bunch of other industries, including in the plants that made flavored coffees. To their surprise, they found that, in these plants, lung disease was not restricted to workers that made flavored coffee.” It turns out that the processing of all coffee produces diacetyl.
So far studies of coffee and diacetyl have been restricted to large plants and not small producers, but that is about to change.

With a $121,134 grant from the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries Safety and Health Investment Program Dr. Simpson is launching a one-year study of diacetyl levels in Olympic Crest Coffee Roasters, a boutique coffee shop in Olympia, Washington. Specifically, Dr. Simpson will lead a team that measures levels of diacetyl released during coffee grinding and brewing and tests ventilation options that could reduce exposure for baristas. 

The study comes out of a 2018 pilot study funded by EDGE where levels of diacetyl were measured in small coffee shops in Canada. In all cases, diacetyl levels in the barista areas exceeded the recommended exposure levels created by NIOSH. “That was a surprise,” according to Dr. Simpson. The pilot study also adapted the NIOSH sampling method to make it more sensitive.

Soon Hannah Echt, a graduate student supported by the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health’s (DEOHS) NIOSH-funded Education Research Center, will visit the Olympic Crest Coffee Roasters to suck air samples into solvent tubes that will collect the diacetyl gas to later be separated and quantified by Shar Samy’s DEOHS analytical lab. In the fall, after ventilation devices have been installed in the areas with the highest diacetyl levels, she will return to repeat her sampling.

“Our hope is that we will increase awareness of this problem, define its extent and disseminate an effective control solution,” says Dr. Simpson. “It’s a pleasure to get out in the field to work with small businesses who take pride in what they do and want to do the right thing for their employees.”

Funding and support for this project has been provided by the State of Washington, Department of Labor & Industries, Safety & Health Investment Projects.

Leading Focus Groups to Learn About Worker Stress

            Workplace stress can impair a worker’s ability to adequately perform their job functions and put them at risk of injury. If persistent, workplace stress can also lead to longer-term health problems and reduced productivity. Recently Dr. Noah Seixas, Dr. June Spector, and Dr. Anjum Hajat, Hannah Curtis, Jessica Porter, and Orly Stampher, investigators from the UW Interdisciplinary Center for Exposures, Genomics, Diseases,

and Environment (EDGE) partnered with Heather Winfrey of the Seattle Area Pipe Trades Apprenticeship, Vanessa Carmen of SMART Local 66, and Cindy Gaudio of the Carpenters Employers Apprenticeship Training Trust to research stress in construction workers, particularly women. Their goal was to better understand the impact of work and non-work stressors on worker’s health.

            In an initial phase of the study participants filled out a survey about a wide variety of work and non-work stressors. Perceived stress was one of the main outcomes studied, using a validated instrument called the “Perceived Stress Scale.” They then had blood samples taken to measure four biomarkers related to the immune system, the inflammatory system, and the hormone response system. Participants were also asked to share strategies they used for managing stressful situations at work.
            In a second stage of the study, the EDGE Community Engagement Core helped Research Coordinator, Hannah Curtis, and graduate student, Orly Stampfer, facilitate small focus groups with study participants to discuss preliminary findings, hear how participants interpreted these results, and understand what additional information they wanted to see.
            Two focus groups were held and participants in both expressed gratitude for having a venue to discuss issues of discrimination at work. Results from the study are now being prepared into materials to give back to the participants that will include appropriate interpretation of the results along with proactive steps that can be taken to reduce workplace stress.

Director Terry Kavanuagh named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

Last month our director, Terry Kavanaugh, was named as a new fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in honor of a lifetime of scientific achievement. The following story about his career first ran on “Health and Safety Matters”, the blog of the University of Washington Department of Occupational and Health Sciences.

Celebrating a lifetime of scientific achievement

Lynn Schnaiberg
 December 18, 2018


Professor Terrance Kavanagh writes on a whiteboard as a student watches.
Terrance Kavanagh in his UW lab. Photo: Sarah Fish.
DEOHS Professor Terrance Kavanagh investigates what makes some of us more vulnerable to toxic chemicals and environmental exposures

Terrance Kavanagh

Professor, UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences

Adjunct Professor, UW Departments of Medicine and Pathology

“Studying environmental toxicology and genetics was a way to combine my interests in environmental sciences . . . and health, letting me contribute to both environmental and public health.”
Terrance Kavanagh, professor in the University of Washington Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences, is one of two UW researchers recently named among the 416 new fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Fellows are elected by peers in recognition of their efforts to advance science or its applications.
Below, we talk with Kavanagh, 64, a laboratory scientist, fly fisherman and winemaker who left his native Michigan for the UW in 1985 to become a postdoc in the pathology department. Today, he directs or co-directs three UW centers. His comments have been edited for clarity and length.

What work are you most proud of? 

We were among the first to create cellular and animal models (lab mice) of modified glutathione synthesis. This work is important for understanding which individuals are most susceptible to harmful environmental exposures, as well as for understanding human diseases and our metabolism of drugs.
Plants, animals and humans all produce the antioxidant glutathione, which lessens harm from exposure to toxicants and disease conditions associated with oxidative stress. As humans age, glutathione levels drop. But a person’s genetics also affect how efficiently the body replaces the antioxidant as it is expended to protect our cells.
We’ve modified a gene in lab mice so that they can no longer efficiently make glutathione. This lets us probe the role glutathione plays in many cellular and physiological processes.
We can then relate those processes to common genetic differences in humans that give us variable capacity to make this vital antioxidant—and, therefore, variable levels of vulnerability to suffering adverse health impacts from chemical exposures.

What in your wide-ranging work has most impacted human health or the scientific field?

Our work can be used to understand who is most vulnerable to toxic chemicals and under what conditions, informing environmental and public health policies that aim to protect susceptible individuals within the broader population.
This is especially useful as personalized medicine and precision environmental health policy evolve.
We already know low glutathione in animals is associated with negative cardiovascular effects from diesel exhaust. In humans, low glutathione can predispose us to acetaminophen drug overdose and resulting liver damage. And we know glutathione dysregulation is linked with cerebral vascular disease, metabolic syndrome, cystic fibrosis and Type 1 diabetes.
Researchers across the country have used the models we (and others) have developed to investigate the importance of this antioxidant in protecting cells, animals and people from various drugs and chemical pollutants and to explore aspects of development and aging, cancer, liver, lung and kidney diseases, inflammation and immunity, psychiatric disorders and neurological diseases.
Terry Kavanagh

Kavanagh talks with DEOHS colleagues. Photo courtesy of Kavanagh.

Tell us about the timely e-cigarette research you’re doing.

Our work with the National Cancer Institute will investigate the potential carcinogenic effects of e-cigarettes—and not just around nicotine.
Important questions relate to the huge diversity of flavoring agents used in these devices. We don’t know a lot about these agents’ toxicity and their ability to initiate and promote precancerous lesions or even cancer itself.
Flavoring agents can turn into reactive aldehydes that can change your DNA. This is the Wild West: People are putting in all kinds of flavoring—and it’s largely unregulated. What happens when these flavoring agents get heated up? Is second-hand exposure to exhaled vapors, particles and chemically modified elements from e-cigarettes potentially harmful? Are we genetically predisposed to susceptibility for adverse effects from e-cigarettes?
We’re using genetically inbred strains of mice that are predicted to be more (or less) susceptible to these e-cigarette constituents. Hopefully this will let us discover, through genetic mapping, those gene variants associated with susceptibility (or resistance) to e-cigarettes.

What drew you to your field? With an undergraduate degree in natural resources, you’ve gone from the natural world to the world of the body and how the first affects the second.

Yes, I’ve gone from studying the entire environment to cells in a dish. I spent a lot of my childhood in the woods and waters of Northern Michigan, which gave me a sense of wonder about the natural world and inspired a love of science.
Today, I hike and camp at Mount Rainier and fly-fish the Yakima River and rivers in Montana. I started college in premed, but found myself also drawn to ecology, evolutionary biology and natural resources. I realized that studying environmental toxicology and genetics was a way to combine my interests in environmental sciences with my interests in medicine and health, letting me contribute to both environmental and public health.
Terry Kavanagh

Kavanagh also makes wine with several DEOHS colleagues. Photo courtesy of Kavanagh.

You’ve got a reputation as a quality winemaker who shares the (literal) fruits of your labor at department get-togethers. Are your forays in fermentation just another form of lab play?

I’ve been fortunate to have wonderfully fun colleagues and friends as fellow winemakers for almost 20 years. Each year seems to have its unique qualities of season, climate and timing. The strains of yeast and malolactic bacteria we add all impact our wines’ quality, which gives us a lot to discuss and argue over.
Naturally, this also requires frequent sampling as the wine ages.

EDGE Administrator Liz Guzy named a 2019 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Community Engagement Fellow

Liz Guzy, the administrator for EDGE and the UW Superfund Program, is one of 23 2019 AAAS Community Engagement Fellows headed to DC for a week of professional development activities.

It foretold great things when Liz Guzy won the University of Washington (UW) Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences (DEOHS) staff award in 2016, after only a year in her position. Sure enough, today Guzy will head to Washington D.C. to begin her fellowship with the 2019 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Community Engagement Fellows Program.  
            The AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program provides a rare professional development and networking opportunity for people with jobs focused on cultivating engagement and collaboration within communities of scientists. It was created in recognition of the importance of this work, and also because people who play this role often do so without formal training or professional support. As stated by AAAS, the goals of the program are to:
Professionalize and institutionalize the role of community management within scientific organizations;
Provide professional development resources to individuals who manage communities and collaborations in research organizations and scientific organizations;
Collect and disseminate knowledge about building strong collaborations and communities.
            Guzy is perfectly suited to the fellowship, given her four years of experience as Administrator of two large National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences research centers at UW— the Interdisciplinary Center on Exposures, Diseases, Genomics & Environment (EDGE) and Superfund Research Program (UW SRP). The more than 100 members of these two groups represent many UW departments, including: DEOHS, Medicine, Pharmacy, Pediatrics, Genome Sciences, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Biostatistics, Epidemiology, Biochemistry, Pathology, Nursing, and Bioethics and Humanities as well as the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute and Seattle Children’s Hospital.
            Despite the emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration in the grants that fund her Centers, Guzy has noticed that many researchers often continue to collaborate only with those in their own labs. Her goal in undertaking the fellowship in her words is “to learn how to foster interactions that lead to novel collaborations across disciplines and departments,” and to “serve my research community better using the tools and connections that are available through the AAAS Fellowship.”

            After the coming week of professional development in Washington DC, Guzy will continue to engage with the other 22 members of the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program though monthly webinars, small group project team work, a mid-year training and experience exchange in DC in June, and an end-of-the-year debrief in DC in December. Along the way she’ll develop her own community playbook to communicate her strategy and tactics for building community and collaboration among the members of EDGE and UW SRP.

Public health experts and climate researchers convene to address communication challenges related to wildfire smoke

As Central Washington became choked with wildfire smoke last summer, Dr. Mark Larson grew so concerned about air quality measures in Kittitas County that he couldn’t sleep for 10 days.
As the health officer for Kittitas County, Larson felt it was his duty to recommend canceling outdoor activities. But as a 20-year community resident, he also knew that the Kittitas Rodeo was right around the corner—a nationally known event that can bring in more than $8 million to the local economy in a single weekend.
Canceling the rodeo would have devastating consequences for his community—a threat made explicit by a public official who asked about replacing Larson with a health officer who would OK the event.
“I’d become the least popular person in Kittitas County,” Larson said.

Our new normal

Smoke in the western parts of North America is getting worse. That was the clear message from Amy Snover, director of the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group (CIG) during a recent symposium on communicating about the health risks of wildfire smoke.
By the 2080s, the median annual area burned in the Northwest could more than double compared to rates of burn experienced between 1916 and 2006, according to Snover. Wildfires and smoke events are becoming our new normal, but we’re not prepared for the impacts.
The symposium was hosted at the UW by the Collaborative on Extreme Event Resilience (CEER) with support from CIG and the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences.
Other sponsors included the UW Program on Climate Change, the Interdisciplinary Center for Exposures, Diseases, Genomics and Environment, the Center for Health and the Global Environment and the Northwest Climate Adaptation Science Center.

Getting the word out

DEOHS Lecturer Nicole Errett

Larson shared his experience as part of a public health practitioner panel on challenges in the field. The smoke cleared from Kittitas County just in time for the 2018 rodeo, and Larson kept his job. But his dilemma as health officer speaks volumes about our future challenges.

Other presenters told related stories—about agricultural communities in the Methow Valley where it’s not safe to be outside when crops are ready for harvest; about tribal children who aren’t able to participate in the harvest of traditional foods; about public schools facing closures when aging buildings can’t stay cool without opening the windows.
From a public health perspective, we face big questions:
  • What messages will support the health of impacted communities?
  • How do we decide what to tell people when the science on health impacts—particularly on mental health—from smoke events is lacking?
  • How do we get messages out to communities that vary widely in terms of language, culture and effective communication channels?
  • Whose responsibility is it to take leadership on messaging?
  • How do we weigh health risks against economic or spiritual risks?
While there are no easy answers, participants agreed that the best answers will come from within impacted communities themselves, shared through forums like the symposium.

A first step

DEOHS Lecturer Tania Busch Isaksen

Drs. Nicole Errett and Tania Busch Isaksen, DEOHS lecturers and co-founders of CEER, planned the smoke symposium with colleague Dr. Heidi Roop of CIG and their students.

“We wanted to start a discussion about the ways that the UW’s resources and expertise could be used to help meet the needs of our public health partners as they grapple with this emerging public health challenge,” Busch Isaksen said.
Errett sees the event as a first step. “We’ll use the discussions we had at the symposium to springboard new collaborations aimed at tackling wildfire smoke risks to improve the health of Washington communities.”

EDGE engagement project lifts moods in the smoke-choked Methow Valley

Typically, summer in the Methow Valley is a time to hike, bike, camp, river raft, mountain climb, attend outdoor arts festivals, and otherwise enjoy the spectacular natural setting.

Lately, things are different. Wildfire season has hit the Methow Valley hard the last five years, causing hazardous smoke conditions that can persist for weeks on end, often making residents feel trapped and isolated.

Teenagers in Twisp, WA find fun and relief from smoke-filled air as part of an EDGE-led community engagement effort. Photo by Kelly Edwards.

Recommendations from public health agencies are commonly limited to staying inside and wearing masks, but those messages aren’t always helpful for people who have been losing whole weeks of summer, cooped up inside. For farmers and agricultural workers who need to harvest, and carpenters who must complete essential outdoor projects before snow falls, staying indoors or leaving the area is not an option. And yet going outside with masks can add to the feeling of apocalypse.

Kelly Edwards, Director of Engagement with the University of Washington Interdisciplinary Center for Exposures, Diseases, Genomics and Environment, wanted to create a different type of public engagement activity, one that would bring community members together in a fun and positive way while providing information to support good day-to-day decision-making.

A girl decorates her mask at the Twisp farmers market. Photo: Kelly Edwards 

The outreach she envisioned would complement the Methow Valley Clean Air Project (MVCAP), which placed Purple Air monitors throughout the Valley to provide residents with timely, highly localized air quality reports that support daily decisions like whether or not to go for a run and, if so, where.

To help create the right messages, Edwards partnered with two local community members—Anthony Twig Wheeler, an international leader in somatic therapy and Robin Baire, a clinical herbalist. Wheeler makes regular appearances on KTRT, the local radio station, to talk about managing stress during wildfire season. Baire specializes in teas and tinctures that can combat the inflammatory response triggered by smoke exposure.

A volunteer with the Methow Valley Clean Air Project. Photo by Kelly Edwards. 

Together with community health expert Rachel Levi and Amanda Durkin, an undergraduate intern in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences who works with Dr. Nicole Errett and MVCAP, Edwards, Wheeler, and Baire set up a booth at the Twisp Farmer’s Market last Saturday where they emphasized support for the body’s natural defenses. Wheeler set up comfortable chairs for people to sit in and talk, Baire provided samples of tea and anti-inflammatory tinctures, and Edwards and Durkin passed out air masks provided by the EDGE Center, encouraging people to color on them with non-toxic markers.

“We wanted to give people the right kind of masks,” says Edwards, “but we also wanted them to make them their own. Adding color made them more fun to wear and also kept people from looking like they were sick.” The masks were rated N95 which means they filter out the tiny particulates that pose a health risk. But unlike masks provided by other public health agencies, they also had an air-exchange pocket at the nose that made exhalation easier and kept internal temperatures more comfortable.

The mask activity drew people from age three to 86. Along with the masks, Kelly distributed a handout designed to be accessible to an elementary school audience with simple messages about what’s in smoke and how you can take care of yourself until it passes. The booth also demonstrated simple DIY home air filters that improve indoor air quality. Taping a furnace filter with a MERV rating of 10 or higher to a regular box fan helps remove PM2.5 that infiltrates everything, including our homes.

Methow Valley Clean Air Ambassadors help community members track the highs and lows of air quality in the Methow Valley over the fire season. 

The positive, action-oriented activity was well-received by a community hit hard by smoke for the last five summers. Edwards says that one of the biggest insights from the engagement activity was recognizing the benefit of framing simple, helpful information in a positive way. One elder community member pointed to the last suggestion “Remind yourself that you’re OK and the smoke will go away again,” and said, “This is what I really needed to hear today.”

Edwards and crew will be back at the Twisp Farmer’s Market for Labor Day weekend and plan to do more stress-less activities this weekend at a community dance party organized by the local radio station KTRT and Wheeler. Along with Elizabeth Walker of the MVCAP, the UW EDGE Center plans to further develop, test, and disseminate positive and nuanced public health messaging around smoke preparedness and disaster response.

Getting their hands on science

A group of high school teachers try out a science experiment during a UW workshop. Photo: Sarah Fish
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High school teachers try out a science experiment during a UW workshop. Photo: Sarah Fish
From sun exposure to vaping, this teacher training program pioneered by DEOHS is changing how high school students learn about health and the environment.*

Sure, you can lecture teenagers about the dangers of sun exposure. You can tell them that skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. But if you really want the message to hit home, let them discover it for themselves.
That’s the premise behind a pioneering environmental-health education program developed by the UW Center for Exposures, Diseases, Genomics & Environment (EDGE) and a group of Washington high school teachers. EDGE is part of the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences (DEOHS).
The ATHENA program—it stands for the Academy for Teaching about Health and Environment Associations—has changed how health and science are taught across the state since it launched under a different name more than 20 years ago.
“We are reaching students in non-science classes and getting them to think about the intricate connections between human health, the health of the environment and the choices we make as individuals and society,” said Jon Sharpe, DEOHS instruction support specialist who helped start the program.

Learning by doing

A sun simulator replicates UV light. Photo: Sarah Fish.

Teachers say the emphasis on hands-on science and topics relevant to today’s teens gets students excited about health careers and changes how they think about their choices as consumers.

EDGE staff work with high school teachers across Washington to develop classroom kits that teach students about the nutritional differences between natural and artificial sweeteners, the health effects of vaping and other environmental health topics.
“Kids like to get their hands on something tactile,” said Marilyn Hair, former community outreach specialist with EDGE who worked with teachers to develop the kits.

A sun-baked experiment

In the sun exposure experiment, high school students place colorless beads, made of special material that reacts to ultraviolet light, inside a clear plastic box and smear lotion or sunscreen on the clear lid. Other beads are placed in a box with nothing applied to the lid.
Then students make predictions: What will happen to the beads when the boxes are exposed to sunlight?
The approach itself is backed by science: A recent study from the University of Chicago found that students who physically experience scientific concepts understand them more deeply and do better on tests.

Adopted by 33 school districts

Beads used in the sun exposure experiment. Photo: courtesy of Lisa Hayward Watts.
The kits are now part of the health curriculum and family and consumer sciences classes in 33 school districts across Washington.
“The ATHENA curriculum hits on a lot of cylinders,” explained Lindzee Alvarez, a health teacher at Interlake High School in Bellevue and one of ATHENA’s first participants. “Students bring home resonant concepts to their families about relevant topics and can link to things they are learning about in other classes.”
Lessons and activities developed for the ATHENA program are now part of the Bellevue School District health curriculum taught across all of the district’s high schools, thanks to efforts by Alvarez and others to promote the materials.

Making science relevant

Alvarez and other ATHENA participants convened at the UW last month to document the program’s impact, revisit program goals and discuss ways to measure its future effectiveness.
While the original idea was to expose middle- and high-school science teachers to the expertise of UW science researchers, ATHENA now also supports teachers developing and piloting new environmental health-focused lessons and activities, Sharpe said.
“When we first started doing outreach to schools, there was a sense that we really needed to get students to do lab-based experiments so we could nurture future environmental health scientists,” Sharpe said.
Today, “there’s a new emphasis on really big, interdisciplinary problems like climate change, the built environment and health disparities—problems that will require all sorts of expertise to tackle in the coming years.”

*This article first appeared on the University of Washington Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences blog “Health & Saftey Matters.”

EDGE Scientists Argue for Updating Food Safety Regulations

In the United States, we usually feel confident that food we bring home from the grocery store is safe. Its quality and safety are monitored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for pesticide residues and by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for food additives and contaminants after all.

       Few of us realize that the rules governing FDA regulation of food safety date back to the 1950s and allow additives that are “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) to be exempted from adequate testing. This GRAS loophole results in an insufficient assurance of food safety because, among other things, it allows the use of thousands of food additives that have not been thoroughly tested for toxicity—a fact that concerns Associate Professor Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana and her colleagues at The American Academy of Pediatrics.

Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana is the Co-Director of the EDGE Center’s Developmental & Reproductive Disorders Collaborative Research Team. Photo by UW Medicine. 

       Dr. Sathyanarayana is an expert on the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals on child development and also the Co-Director of the EDGE Center’s Developmental & Reproductive Disorders Collaborative Research Team. Recently she co-authored a technical report and a policy statement in the scientific journal Pediatrics, together with EDGE toxicology Ph.D. graduate student Rachel Shaffer, and Associate Professor Leonardo Trasande of the New York University School of Medicine, urging Congress to change the guidelines so that the FDA can collect more data about food additives.

Dr. Rachel Shaffer is an EDGE Ph.D. student in UW’s toxicology program. Photo by Jeremy Shaffer. 

       In their technical report, Sathyanarayana and Shaffer point out that very few of the chemicals used in food and food packaging in the U.S. have been tested for reproductive toxicology (only 263 out of 3941 chemicals listed on the FDA “Substances Added to Food” website) and even fewer for developmental toxicology (only two of the same 3941). Children are particularly susceptible to the damaging effects of endocrine disruptors because 1. they eat and drink more relative to their size; 2. their systems for metabolizing and detoxifying chemicals are not as well developed; and 3. their bodies are going through critical hormone-dependent developmental stages, the disruption of which can cause irreversible damage and persistent adverse health effects later in life.

       Several categories of compounds are of particular concern to pediatricians. These include the bisphenols and phthalates used to in plastic food containers and manufacturing equipment; the perfluoroalkyl chemicals used in grease-proof paper and paperboard; the perchlorates used in food packaging; and the nitrates and nitrites used as preservatives and color-enhancers, particularly in meat. Growing evidence suggests that these compounds are associated with a range of health problems from obesity and cancer to disruptions in hormone systems and reproductive and neurological development.
       The report also includes steps individuals can take to minimize their exposure, including buying more fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables and fewer processed meats; avoiding microwaving in plastic containers and wrapping when possible; and using alternatives to plastics such as glass or stainless steel.
       Despite these recommendations, Sathyanarayana and Shaffer emphasize that the purpose of these articles is to encourage better federal regulation. “Our real goal here is to prompt policy change. The burden should not be placed on individuals or families; instead, we need stronger national policies to ensure that direct and indirect food additives are not harmful,” said Shaffer. Sathyanarayana adds “We did this story because most people don’t know that chemicals can be added to their foods without adequate safety/toxicity data.”
       Access to the full technical report is available here and the policy statement here.