Environmental Health

Our research agenda includes taking an ecological approach to problems in human environmental health, especially exposure to arsenic as a non-point source contaminant. We’re also getting back into the ecology of infectious disease for the first time in more than a decade.

  • Arsenic:  Kathy is working with Dr. Margaret Karagas and colleagues to assess human exposure to arsenic and other metals.  Chronic, low-level exposure to arsenic is associated with skin lesions; skin, lung, and bladder cancer; vascular diseases; low birth weight; increased susceptibility to infection; and reduced IQ.  Humans are generally thought to be exposed to the more toxic, inorganic form primarily through drinking water, which is of particular concern in some regions of New Hampshire as well as other parts of the world.  In addition, an emerging body of work suggests that elevated concentrations of arsenic in common food items – including rice and rice-based products, fish and seafood, and beer/wine – may pose an additional risk to consumers (see e.g., this update from Consumer Reports).  Studying arsenic exposure in food is particularly hard because (1) only some of the arsenic is in the highly toxic inorganic form — and this fraction varies even within types of foods and (2) the toxicity of many organic forms has not yet been established.  However, understanding this pathway to exposure is quite important because everyone is exposed to trace amounts of arsenic via food, regardless of the arsenic in their drinking water.

Working as part of the Children’s Center for Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research at Dartmouth, we are quantifying exposure to arsenic via water and food for members of the New Hampshire Birth Cohort (NHBC), a prospective cohort study that recruits pregnant women who drink water from private wells.  To date, our work has shown that rice and products made from rice, such as brown rice syrup, may be quite high in arsenic (Jackson et al. 2012a,b) and may be  important sources of exposure for the pregnant moms (Gilbert-Diamond et al. 2011), NHBC infants (Carignan et al. 2015), and in U.S. children more generally (Davis et al. 2012, Lai et al. 2015). Importantly, we are not only assessing exposure as the NHBC children grow from infancy through age 5, but relating those exposures to key health outcomes, including immune function, growth and neurodevelopment.

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  • Lyme Disease:  Incoming graduate student Kaitlin McDonald is planning to study the ecology of Lyme disease – stay tuned to learn more!  This will be our first foray into infectious disease research since studies of the ecology of cholera in the early 2000s.