How a USC alum is fighting to reduce childhood lead exposure

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April 5, 2018
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Public Health Week

An environmental health fellow at the United States Environmental Protection Agency, USC alum Danielle Ramos, MPH ’17, MSW ‘13, is working to bring awareness to the dangers of childhood lead exposure.

In a time when government agencies are facing intense scrutiny, United States Environmental Protection Agency workers and scientists continue to fight for public health. Danielle Ramos, MPH ’17, MSW ’13, is continuing her USC graduate research in childhood lead exposure as an environmental health fellow with the Association of Schools & Programs of Public Health and EPA to share with the public the science and research behind lead exposure and its consequences.

Pictured: Danielle Ramos, MPH ’17, MSW ’13. Photo courtesy Danielle Ramos.
Pictured: Danielle Ramos, MPH ’17, MSW ’13. Photo courtesy Danielle Ramos.

What inspired you to get involved in environmental health?

I decided to pursue my Master of Public Health after my Master of Social Work to learn how to tackle health issues from a holistic perspective. While doing mental health therapy with kids and teens in South Los Angeles within the school setting, I learned about additional issues that affect child health outcomes from a larger systemic perspective and was adamant about learning how I could potentially influence child health policy to improve health outcomes. I also personally felt like a victim of exposure to unhealthy toxins in my environment and felt I had to make others aware of the important risk factors lurking in our everyday environments.

Pictured: Danielle Ramos and health scientist Manthan Shah. Photo courtesy Danielle Ramos.
Pictured: Danielle Ramos and health scientist Manthan Shah. Photo courtesy Danielle Ramos.

What are your goals in environmental health?

Some of my career goals include working within a federal health agency such as the EPA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to work toward improving policies surrounding children’s environmental health. Children are the most vulnerable to toxins in our environment, as their organs and developmental systems are growing at a rapid rate. Parents, as well as the public, need to understand the risks associated with exposure to harmful contaminants in our environments, including, but not limited to, lead, BPA, phthalates, pesticides, parabens, flame retardants and PFAS, as these have all been associated with adverse health outcomes seen in developing children. My goal is to become a well-known and respected leader, advocate in children’s environmental health and potentially enter the political realm.

Pictured: Danielle Ramos and mentor Kara Belle. Photo courtesy Danielle Ramos.
Pictured: Danielle Ramos and mentor Kara Belle. Photo courtesy Danielle Ramos.

What types of activities does your work entail?

I am currently an ASPPH children’s environmental health fellow based at the EPA within the Office of Children’s Health Protection. Through my fellowship work I have been involved in numerous projects and activities within my office as well as inter-agency work with other federal agencies other EPA offices. I have been extremely humbled by my experience at the EPA, and it has been insightful to learn how such a bureaucratic federal agency operates. I am currently working on co-authoring a research paper on childhood lead exposure and nutritional interventions. The paper focuses on the need for effective evidence-based nutritional interventions to deliver appropriate public health messaging for parents with children diagnosed with elevated lead levels. I also have worked with a committee of children’s environmental health research experts across the nation to develop a toolkit to disseminate educational information regarding children’s environmental health through the development of social media strategies. Some other work I am involved in includes identifying lead hotspots throughout the country, where communities are at highest risk from childhood lead exposures. Additionally, I have been able to participate in federal inter-agency meetings to discuss with other experts how to better protect children from environmental threats.

Pictured: Danielle Ramos and mentor Angela Hackel, EPA Program Implementation and Coordination Division director. Photo courtesy Danielle Ramos.
Pictured: Danielle Ramos and mentor Angela Hackel, EPA Program Implementation and Coordination Division director. Photo courtesy Danielle Ramos.

What improvements have been made in reducing children’s lead exposure?

I have been working on understanding the association between childhood lead exposure and health outcomes since my research in graduate school. During this short time, I learned many policies have been successfully implemented to aid in reducing childhood exposures to lead. However, emerging research is unveiling additional health impacts from exposures even at very low blood lead levels in children. This is quite alarming, and is important to understand in order to convey appropriate risk communication and management strategies to the public.

What sorts of action has the lead exposure cause seen recently?

Over the last several decades, various federal and state policies have called for actions to reduce lead sources, which have dramatically lowered childhood lead levels over time. The issue now is that lower income communities and environmental justice communities are significantly overburdened by lead exposures through old lead-based paint in homes, lead leaching through old plumbing and other sources like lead battery recycling facilities or old legacy sources, since lead tends to not break down in our environment. This is where more accurate and effective information is needed to educate the public about the risks of childhood exposure to lead, as well as lawmakers who can influence policies to be more protective of children. Even though we have dramatically reduced lead exposures in the past, those at highest risk of exposure need to be much more informed of what they can do to protect their health.

Who should be concerned about lead exposure?

Those who are concerned about child health and health outcomes should be concerned about reducing childhood lead exposure. This issue not only affects children, but affects those children who grow into adults and are worried about potential adverse health outcomes associated with childhood lead exposure. There is no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe. When lead enters the body it is distributed to the brain, liver, kidney and bones, and is stored in teeth and in bones. Toxic effects of lead can impact the development of the brain and nervous system. Associated health impacts include deficits in IQ, cognitive and behavioral problems, reduced attention span and ADHD, delayed puberty in boys, early onset puberty in girls, hearing problems, birth defects, as well as many other health outcomes.

What are the biggest challenges facing those working to reduce lead exposure?

Some major challenges surrounding this issue involve providing solutions to minimize exposure via drinking water sources and improving housing to remediate old lead based paint from buildings. Various cities and counties are taking matters into their own hands by providing funding to residents to replace old lead service lines which may be exposing residents to lead in drinking water. Other local agencies are able to help residents with remediation efforts through various programs. However, many cities and states across the country are still impacted by these major lead exposure sources due to lack of funding.

Pictured: Danielle Ramos and fellows. Photo courtesy Danielle Ramos.
Pictured: Danielle Ramos and fellows. Photo courtesy Danielle Ramos.

Why is it important to understand environmental health?

Environmental health is a very important field that does not get enough attention. Health professionals need to begin to look outside the box to understand the intersection of health outcomes from a holistic perspective. Mental health as well as environmental health, not just within the context of one’s psychosocial environment, but within their physical environment need to begin to be explored at a systemic level, rather than an individual level. Health impacts individuals on a systemic level and interventions need to begin focusing on addressing health risks within each context to influence positive health outcomes.

Photo courtesy Danielle Ramos.
Photo courtesy Danielle Ramos.

What can the public do to get involved?

Find something you are passionate about. Perhaps your brother or mom were affected by some environmental toxin or accumulation of toxins, and were diagnosed with some health outcome perhaps because of it. It is difficult for doctors to understand these issues, as they are trained on more individualized medicine and not on how environmental exposures impact health. Take some time to educate yourself and learn about the existing resources available to you. Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units work on conducting children’s environmental health trainings for healthcare professionals and have a wealth of information and resources accessible to the public. University-based NIEHS/EPA Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers work on conducting research surrounding toxins and associated health outcomes. For students, one of these organizations would be a great place to do an internship (I did mine with the Southern California Children’s Environmental Health Center in the USC Department of Population and Public Health Sciences). If you are an MPH student, pick your environmental health professors’ brains about these topics and understand how you can get more involved. I always shout out Physicians for Social Responsibility, as this organization is known for getting involved in environmental health and educating policymakers about the harmful effects from environmental toxins. There is so much you can do. Get involved. This field is emerging and it is an important discussion we all need to begin having.

To learn more about the EPA, visit www.epa.gov.  

Interested in environmental health? The MPH program at USC offers an environmental health sub-concentration that provides students with the skills and knowledge they need to make a difference.

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