Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health


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Funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), this study aimed to identify and implement solutions that address the unique hazards within the seafood industry. The study intended to examine the experiences of Gulf Coast seafood workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, including how workplace and social factors impacted their health and quality of life, as well as explore how the structural-social determinants of health (SDoH) impact workers’ risks and health outcomes. 

Interviews were conducted with seafood processors and industry decision-makers in the Gulf Coast region, as they have unique characteristics and challenges as compared to other fisheries in the United States.

This study explored the first investigation into the urine protein profiles of firefighters exposed to smoke during emergency fires. The findings show that smoke exposure alters the protein and peptide patterns in the urine of these firefighters. Researchers also identified potential biomarkers of fire smoke exposure. These biomarkers are specifically linked to cancers prevalent among firefighters, including those affecting the kidney, bladder, and prostate.

A quasi-experimental study to examine the short- and long-term effectiveness of the Nurturing Healthy Teachers (NHT) nutrition intervention on food insecurity, dietary behaviors, mental health and cardiometabolic health among preschool and elementary school teachers.

A convenience sample of 28 elementary schools with pre-kindergarten and elementary classrooms were recruited in Houston, Texas. Nurturing Healthy Teacher intervention includes Brighter Bites, an evidence-based coordinated school health program that combines access to fresh produce and nutrition education, and Create Healthy Futures, a web-based nutrition education program that targets nutrition knowledge, self-efficacy, mindfulness, and social support to create healthy habits among teachers. The primary outcome is food insecurity. Secondary outcomes include diet quality, mental health, and cardiometabolic health. Metabolic markers and skin carotenoid levels were assessed using in-person assessments, while all other measures were obtained via questionnaire.

The world has experienced 16 major viral disease outbreaks in the last two decades, including Dengue, SARS-CoV, H1N1, Ebola, MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2. Although we have the technology and social protocols to respond to viral epidemics, it is challenging to predict and prepare for future outbreaks. Pandemic preparedness is further impaired by our limited understanding of viral diversity in humans and other mammals. In this project, researchers aim to develop tools including metagenomic sequencing and analysis to uncover the human viral diversity, with the dream to create a global map of human virus.

The Center -- supported by the NIH/NCI -- seeks to reduce cancer risk, and ultimately improve cancer outcomes for communities experiencing persistent poverty. This project involves a randomized controlled trial (RCT) of evaluation of the effects of a nutrition education program plus weekly food delivery program on the health of elementary school aged children.

Children will have their HgA1c and Carotenoid content measured at the start of the school day and at the end of the school day. They will be compared with a cohort of children from schools that did not implement this program.

Infectious viral diseases are one of the leading causes of human deaths worldwide. The COVID-19 pandemic has unequivocally demonstrated the need of new tools to anticipate viral presence and transmission before it spreads through communities. Wastewater surveillance has been efficient to indicate viral presence and penetration in the community, as demonstrated by early work from researchers.

Project goals are to develop early-warning systems for monitoring the emergence and spread of viral diseases in the population. By integrating wastewater surveillance, molecular biology, mathematical modeling, and genomic sequencing approaches, researchers aim to:

1) Create novel tools for monitoring pathogenic agents in community wastewater, capturing infection trends at different locations and time points.

2) Quantitatively understand and predict viral transmission dynamics and the progression of outbreaks.

3) Track the evolution of genomic variants emerging in the population.

Clinics with patient populations which have a large proportion of unrecognized pre diabetes, poorly controlled diabetes, and poorly controlled hypertension will collaborate with UTHealth to help improve cardiovascular disease prevention. This is accomplished by working with clinics to increase referral rates to Diabetes Prevention Program, Diabetes Self-management education, and enroll in HTN monitoring programs.

Referral rates are increased by improving clinic logistics to include more clinical care staff such as community health workers, medical assistants, and case managers. It also involves optimizing electronic health care records, and working with providers of chronic disease programs to provides these services.

This study investigates PAH exposure in firefighters and its impact on blood cell components, comparing volunteer and career firefighters. Results indicate significant hematological differences, with volunteers showing higher systemic inflammation. This research points to the critical need for improved decontamination and protection measures, especially for volunteers.

Microbiome plays important roles in human health and influences host responses to infectious diseases and medicine. As a dynamic system, gut microbiome changes with external diet and environmental variations as well as the internal interactions from the ~10^13 microbial residents in hundreds of species.

Researchers hope to answer these straightforward but challenging questions:

1) How to reduce the side effects of antibiotics on gut microbiota? 

2) How does the medicine we take every day alter our microbiome?

3) Can we balance the microbiota for a health gut?

Workers involved in post-flood reconstruction face an increased risk of occupational exposure to respiratory
and other safety hazards as well as threats to their personal security. Post-flood reconstruction is often handled by day laborers who are predominantly non-English speaking and who have limited access to safety training and personal protective equipment.

The interdisciplinary team of this Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program are developing and refining Pocket Ark (PA), a comprehensive e-learning platform for workers in post-flood reconstruction. Their goal in Phase II is to develop the next generation of PA’s e-learning platform to disseminate critical information about hazards to workers prior to deployment to a post-flood worksite. Project aims include updating the PA platform and conducting a high- fidelity simulated disaster response scenario to train 64 workers and evaluate the program’s efficacy. As an outcome, Phase II is expected to yield a production-ready e-learning platform that: 1) delivers quality, audience-appropriate training to workers; 2) disseminates real-time information about potential on-site hazards; 3) improves logistics between workers and coordinating organizations; and 4) provides tools to reduce wage theft and other security risks. The anticipated outcome of PA is significant in that it addresses multiple dimensions of worker safety unique to this worker population.

The study, supported by the National Institute of Justice, will utilize a robust sampling mechanism to capture the experiences of a large sample of Latinx adults in the U.S. and enhance our understanding hate crime and bias victimization reporting, service utilization, health consequences, and community impact of this form of victimization.

The purpose of this study is to compare the effect on weight and metabolic outcomes of an enhanced intervention, comprised of evidence-based financial coaching plus a lifestyle intervention versus the lifestyle intervention alone. The project aims to improve the quality nutrition and degree of exercise through increasing the financial stability of low income families.

This study, supported by the CDC, examines access, use, carriage, storage, and sharing of firearms among a large sample of ethnically diverse individuals to examine risk and protective factors of firearm injury and violence.

This study examines the link between and mechanisms underlying occupational injuries and substance misuse to inform clinical needs by conducting semi-structured interviews and participant observation. In addition, it studies the feasibility of healthcare navigators by identifying and addressing biopsychosocial factors that lead to increased injury and substance misuse.

The study will evaluate whether and how commercial fishermen use and access the healthcare navigators to reduce injury and substance use. The project brings together worker health equity and structural/social dimensions of health models to understand the bidirectional relationship between injury and substance misuse, and to address these interlinked issues by improving biopsychosocial factors among low SES and im/migrant workers.

This project - supported by the NIOSH Southwest Center for Agricultural Health, Injury Prevention and Education - includes interviews, focus groups, and observations with shrimp fishermen in Texas to understand the barriers to preventing slips, trips, and falls.

Community-led interventions that address structural and social determinants of health are lacking among im/migrant workers, especially seafood workers. This lack of medical attention is especially alarming given their high rate of injury and death. Through partnerships with Gulf Coast communities, researchers are studying how mobile street clinics can decrease health disparities and increase health equity among fishermen, dock workers, and their families. Our research methodology is a mixed-methods participatory approach, including community based participatory research (CBPR), surveys, semi-structured interviews, participant observation, and photovoice. 

This project - supported by the NIH/NIHCD - is a competing renewal to continue following a randomized controlled trial (RCT) sample to measure the long-term efficacy of a dating violence prevention program and test the added benefit of a text-based booster.

The project, supported by the CDC and NIOSH, aims to conduct a systematic review, holistic ethnography, and translate research products for policymakers.

Researchers are exploring how fishermen’s stories and photos can help inform policy solutions through photo-ethnographic methodologies with fishermen, and then translating the results for policymakers. Funded by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Funded by the EPA Gulf of Mexico Division, this project includes microbial source tracking and a human health risk assessment in Baffin Bay, Texas to characterize fecal pollution sources, estimate human health risks, and engage with local communities, including the colonias, regarding water quality and public health.

Funded by the EPA and includes developing educational outreach materials for school staff to identify and mitigate environmental hazards (air and water) in the school environment.

This project is funded by the Texas General Land Office and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association to conduct a proof-of-concept study examining the integration of microbial source tracking data into a human health risk assessment for a popular recreational bay in Rockport, Texas.

This study is community driven and will evaluate the feasibility of this framework for other coastal areas in Texas.

The Health-Atmosphere Nexus Group (HANG) investigates health risks linked to climate change, air pollution, extreme weather, and natural disasters from local to global scales. HANG is committed to enhancing health equity and promoting environmental justice.

Recent projects include: combining remote sensing, machine learning, and low-cost sensors to assess global (NASA HAQAST) and regional (NSF) wildfire exposure; quantifying the effects of PM2.5 chemical components on cardiovascular disease (NIH NIEHS); advancing health equity and environmental justice in under-resourced and overburdened communities (NASA EEJ); and applying multi-angle remote sensors to support environmental health research (NASA JPL).

Workplace violence (WPV) including verbal abuse, physical threats, and physical assaults can result is serious adverse consequences for workers.

Researchers conducted a three-year, cross-sectional study employing a mixed-methods approach including worker and clinic level surveys, focus groups, clinic walk-through surveys, geo-information system (GIS) analyses to study WPV and WPV prevention efforts at the worker, clinic, clinic system, and community levels.

The main aim of this project was to conduct a household survey and focus groups on the prevalence, nature, and possible effects of certain labor rights practices in Central America, including the prevalence of work-related and gender-based violence. Interviews were conducted with nationally representative samples of over 9,000 workers in the six Spanish-speaking countries of Central America (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama).

David Gimeno, PhD, led the effort to conduct the Second Central American Working Conditions and Health Survey (II ECCTS for its Spanish acronym). This work was performed in collaboration with colleagues from Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain, and SALTRA (acronym in Spanish for “Health and Work”), a Central American network of research institutes and universities headquartered in Costa Rica at the Universidad Nacional. The project was conducted under a Cooperative Agreement between the USDOL Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health (UTSPH), and co-sponsored by the USDOL Chief Evaluation Office (CEO).

Aiming to establish a network of occupational health clinics that improves the detection of occupational disease in hospitals of the Spanish national health service.

Individuals working as domestic cleaners, particularly in South Texas, are overwhelmingly Hispanic or Latina women and subject to numerous environmental and occupational hazards, including exposure to potentially toxic chemicals in cleaning agents and ambient exposures to VOCs in their residential environment.

We are building on an existing academic-community partnership to recruit 100 Hispanic women working as domestic cleaners in San Antonio TX and, using a community-engaged approach, assess these women’s total personal air exposure to VOCs, characterize determinants of exposure, and explore associations between total personal air VOC exposure and biomarkers of inflammation and oxidative stress.

The Gulf Coast Center for Precision Environmental Health (GC-CPEH) is a multi-institutional Center supporting academic and research partnerships between Baylor College of Medicine (BCM), The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health (UTHealth) School of Public Health, and UTMB.

The goals are to 1: Integrate and catalyze impactful EHS research across institutions of the Texas Medical Center and promote the next-generation of EHS researchers; 2: Provide inter-institutional access to resources and cutting-edge technologies to accelerate translation and reverse translation of research advances to improve human environmental health; 3: Support and empower community engagement across the Gulf Coast region by linking community stakeholders and investigators in multi-directional communication activities that inform GC-CPEH research: 4: Enable rapid response research activities during and after environmental emergencies in the Gulf Coast region.

Health care workers are at risk for work-related asthma, which may be affected by changes in cleaning practices. We examined associations of cleaning tasks and products with work-related asthma in health care workers in 2016, comparing them with prior results from 2003.

We estimated asthma prevalence by professional group and explored associations of self-reported asthma with job-exposure matrix-based cleaning tasks/products in a representative Texas sample of 9914 physicians, nurses, respiratory/occupational therapists, and nurse aides.

Results: Response rate was 34.8% (n = 2421). The weighted prevalence rates of physician-diagnosed (15.3%), work-exacerbated (4.1%), and new-onset asthma (6.7%) and bronchial hyperresponsiveness symptoms (31.1%) were similar to 2003. New-onset asthma was associated with building surface cleaning (odds ratio [OR], 1.91; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.10-3.33), use of ortho-phthalaldehyde (OR, 1.77; 95% CI, 1.15-2.72), bleach/quaternary compounds (OR, 1.91; 95% CI, 1.10-3.33), and sprays (OR, 1.97; 95% CI, 1.12-3.47).

Conclusion: Prevalence of asthma/bronchial hyperresponsiveness seems unchanged, whereas associations of new-onset asthma with exposures to surface cleaning remained, and decreased for instrument cleaning.”

Worker well-being emphasizes quality of life, driven by the relationship between individual worker health and factors both at and outside the workplace, seeking to have workers thrive and achieve their full potential.

Over a three-year period, this U13 Cooperative Agreement with NIOSH contributed to this public discourse in a major way through a series of conferences and dissemination activities that bring together a broad, interprofessional audience that includes, but goes beyond employers, workers and the academic community, focusing on the three critical areas of research, training and policy/application.