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Student-Led Research Highlights Risks of Pollutants and Mitigation Strategies

Environmental Health students showcased their expertise in an engaging poster competition, unveiling empirical data on exposures in Miami homes, offices, and neighborhoods, including pollutants in the air, water, and food. Their presentations extended beyond data to offer innovative strategies for mitigating these adverse exposures and addressing associated health risks.

In this class project, students engaged in problem-based learning, utilizing instruments, tools, and other skills acquired in the class to characterize various environmental conditions and pollutants, identifying their potential adverse health impacts. The data was critical for guiding evidence-based interventions to mitigate the health effects of the environment. 

female students explains scientific poster to male student
Students fostering knowledge exchange and collaboration.

The initiative was led by Naresh Kumar, Ph.D., Director of the Climate and Health Graduate Program in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University Miami Miller School of Medicine. 

Fiona Maura Hanly secured the first-place award for her work. Hanly objectively quantified the concentration of air pollutants, focusing on total volatile organic compounds (TVOCs) and particulate matter (PM) of different sizes in both beauty salons. Hanly’s data indicated elevated levels of both TVOCs and PM in salons, attributed to the relatively high concentration of VOCs in many personal care products used, leading to the generation of vapors. 

Runner-up, Matthew Hoyt Weeks, examined the water quality of drinking fountains and splash pads in public parks. Weeks’ data revealed the presence of ammonia, chlorine, and fecal coliform in certain samples. This suggests potentially heightened exposure risks for the public using these facilities to these chemicals and microorganisms. 

four students standing in front of a scientific poster
Environmental Health students review scientific posters.

Both students provided strategies to mitigate adverse exposure. “For example, Hanly suggested the use of masks to mitigate PM exposure, and the use of food high in antioxidants to counteract the effects of air pollution exposure, these include broccoli, spinach, carrots, avocado, beetroots, potatoes, and so on, said Dr. Kumar. “Weeks suggested further changes in the Safe Drinking Water Act, established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to protect drinking water in public facilities.”

Each poster was assessed with an average weighted score, combining 50% peer evaluation and 50% evaluation by Dr. Scott Brown, a research associate professor of public health sciences who served as an external evaluator.

Hanly and Weeks were awarded certificates along with cash prizes of $300 and $200, respectively, personally funded by Dr. Kumar. 

“Our society is plagued by ‘environmental illiteracy’, because the public and even most healthcare professionals are unaware of environmental pollutants we inhale, ingest (through water and food), and are dermally exposed to, as well as the harmful environmental conditions we interact with,” said Dr. Kumar.

The main goal of the class project was to overcome this ‘illiteracy’ by firsthand learning about environmental pollutants that individuals and communities are routinely exposed to. EPH641 trains students to objectively assess environmental pollutants and identify and characterize harmful environmental conditions, he emphasized.

Written by Deycha Torres Hernández
Published on December 18, 2023