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Engaging communities to understand how environment and social factors affect pregnancy
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Engaging communities to understand how environment and social factors affect pregnancy

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At 10 p.m. on April 20, 2010, an explosionrockedtheDeepwater Horizonoil well drilling off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 workers and injuring 17 others. The blowout stoper, a device that prevents crude oil from being released, was not activated as the flames rose up on the drilling platform. Within days, a five-mile-long oil slickblackened thewaters.In total, thecollapse of the drilling platformleaked206million gallonsofcrude oilinto the Gulf of Mexico, enough tofillover279 Olympic-sized swimming pools,andmadeit theThe largest marine oil spillage in U.S.history.

The toxic chemicals released into the atmosphere and sea by the combination of crude oil, chemical dispersants used to clean-up the spillage and byproducts from controlled burnings to remove the surface oil were a mixture of millions of gallons and crude oil. The potential danger to the health of those who eat contaminated seafood or inhale polluted air poses a threat.The health of residents of the U.S. Gulf CoastCommunities that have suffered from historical health disparities, environmental threats, such as poor air quality due to industrial activity, and recurrent natural catastrophes are especially vulnerable to the effects of the oil spillage.

To understand the impact ofexposure to pollutantsand other environmental stressorson communities,local data andcommunityengagementarekey, according toDr.Maureen Lichtveld,dean of the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh.As the Deepwater Horizon disaster unfolded, Lichtveld wasat Tulane University andinterested in studying the effects of the oil spill on pregnant women incoastal communities.

Dr. Lichtveld presents at the 2021 Magee Summit. Credit to LUXE creative.

Inextricably linked to the healthof children and the next generation is women’s health, she stated in a keynote address at therecent2021Magee-Womens Summit. Pregnancy is a unique window of susceptibilitywhereexposures toenvironmentalstressors can impact the long-term health of both mother and child.

Lichtveld was able, through a community-based participatory approach, to better understand the problems faced by pregnant and reproductive-age women in Gulf Coast communities after the oil spillage.spill.

Following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, many pregnant womenwere fearful about the safety of local seafood,so they switched from eating healthy fatty acid-containing proteins like fish to less nutritious options,such as beef,or began to eatimported fish thatLichtvelds research foundwere actually more contaminated than locally caught options.Translating their findings about seafood safetythroughcommunity collaborative approaches wasvital for helping these women make informed healthand dietdecisions. These community partnerships have been successful by incorporating cultural factors and addressing communication gaps.

When looking at the future, it is important to focus on longitudinal environmental studies. These studies should take into consideration multiple ethnicities, cultural diettraditions, as well as potential protective factors. Lichtveld said that no intervention is possible without the help of community health workers.

For women in Gulf Coast communities, theexperience of multiple disasters,coupled with income lossafter thespill disrupted thefishing industry,increasedrates ofdepression and post-traumatic stress disorder.To address these mental health concerns, Lichtveld and her team turned to community health workerstoforgeconnections between health systems andpregnant women. This program helpedincrease adherence to prenatal care, improvedaccessibility of health servicesand provided resources to withstand and recover from future disasters.

Currently,Lichtveldand her team are employingtheircommunity-basedapproach to assess the influence of prenatal exposure to mercury and pesticides on maternal health and birth outcomes inSurinameSouth America. Lichtveld based on her experiences in Louisiana and Suriname, noted that studies that include local data and community participation could create long-lasting community academic partnerships that will improve the quality and quantity of future public-health researchand policy.

Dana Smith is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pittsburgh’s Psychiatry Department. She is a participant in the UPMC Science Writing Mentorship Program.

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