UTHealth receives $2.5 million to study metal recycling particle emissions in Houston

From left to right
Loren H. Raun (Rice University); Elaine Symanski (UTHealth School of Public Health); Adrian Shelley (Air Alliance Houston); Daisy James (Houston Health Department).

HOUSTON – (Jan. 8, 2016) - The National Institute of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS) has awarded $2.5 million to The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health to study emissions of metal particles from metal recycling facilities in Houston.

This innovative, five-year project, called “Metal Air Pollution Partnership Solutions” (MAPPS), brings together a unique team of scientists, environmental investigators, community organizers, neighborhood leaders, metal recyclers and an advocacy group. This team of people will assess potential health risks associated with metal exposures using community air monitoring results and obtain feedback about environmental health concerns via community surveys. The MAPPS team will use the results of the environmental risk assessments and the surveys to develop a public health action plan. The action plan may include the development and/or dissemination of emission reduction practices that can be adopted by the recycling industry, a targeted educational program for the community and a public policy component for local and state-level legislative agencies. The overall impact of the project will be evaluated in terms of the following:

  • achieved reduction in environmental health risks as associated with exposure to emissions from metal recyclers;
  • enhanced community capacity to respond to environmental health risks;
  • heightened awareness among neighborhood residents, metal recyclers and policy makers; and
  • strengthened partnerships among neighborhood residents, academia, advocacy groups, government and industry.

“This award will allow us to conduct seminal research in a scientific area not well-studied that will draw upon evidence-based principles in environmental health sciences and behavioral sciences,” says  principal investigator, Elaine Symanski, Ph.D., director of the Southwest Center for Occupational and  Environmental  Health and associate professor of epidemiology at the UTHealth School of Public Health. “Additionally, the team of scientists from UTHealth School of Public Health is privileged to be working on a project in which scientists, advocates, industry, community and government have approached the project as a collaboration from the outset. Our research is translational as it includes developing, implementing and evaluating a multi-faceted intervention that has the potential to improve the health of communities in our city.”

The need for this study was generated by preliminary data developed by the Houston Health Department (HHD) in response to citizen-reported complaints of air pollution and other concerns related to metal recycling in Houston. The HHD investigations showed elevated levels of metal particles such as cobalt, nickel, chromium, and cadmium at a few of the 25 metal recycling facilities that were sampled, selected from more than 150 recyclers in Houston.

NIEHS guidelines required a community-based participatory approach to assessment and intervention. The funded organizations include the HHD, Rice University, Air Alliance Houston and the UTHealth School of Public Health. The community advisory board includes representatives from Northside Village/Fifth Ward, Magnolia Park, East Lawndale, South Park, four participating metal recycling facilities located in these Houston neighborhoods, as well as the Recycling Council of Texas.

“We are working cooperatively with the MAPPS researchers to find and fix any problems associated with our economically and environmentally beneficial industry, and to establish better communications with neighborhoods, city officials and universities” says Tom Baker, leader of the recyclers’ group.

Media Contact — Hannah Rhodes: 713-500-3030