Grant Recognizes National Leadership in Environmental Health Disparities Research

May. 5, 2021

The University of Rochester Environmental Health Sciences Center (EHSC) has received a $7.7 million, five-year renewal grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS). The grant marks five decades of federal support for research that has helped expand our understanding of how exposure to environmental agents, such as heavy metals, air and water pollution, and pesticides, impact human health. 

The EHSC – which is led by B. Paige Lawrence, Ph.D., the Wright Family Research professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Medicine – has been continuously funded by the NIEHS since 1975.  This Center has attracted more than $100 million in extramural funding since its inception.  Rochester is one of only 26 NIEHS-designated core Centers-of-Excellence in environmental health research in the U.S.  

The Center supports broad portfolio of research programs that range from lab-based science that investigates the biological mechanisms by which environmental chemicals contribute to disease, to population-based studies that inform and improve public health.  The EHSC provides researchers with integrated access to specialized resources and facilities, and supports programs that promote career development and leadership for the next generation of environmental health investigators. The EHSC is also home to a Community Engagement Core, which works closely with community organizations, government, educators, and health professionals to address environmental health issues through outreach, advocacy and allyship.

The central focus of the EHSC is the increasingly recognized concept that many human diseases cannot be attributed solely to genetics, and that environmental factors – such as air and water quality and access to healthy living conditions – in conjunction genetic risk factors are major contributors to human disease.  Understanding these relationships generates new knowledge that is translated into new ways to reduce, prevent, and treat disease and improve health.

The EHSC supports researchers across multiple departments and disciplines, investigating the impacts of air pollution, microplastics, pesticides, metals, endocrine disruptors, and other environmental factors on human development, the immune system, the brain, lung, heart, and reproductive health.  Some examples of the leading work supported by the EHSC include:

  • Studies in 2002 that revealed that children in the City of Rochester suffered from elevated blood lead levels more than 10 times the national rate, spurred the creation of the Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning.  EHSC researchers played key leadership roles in the organization and identified the sources of lead dust in homes and innovative methods of abatement.  The resulting efforts led to a groundbreaking city lead law that contributed to a 90 percent decrease in children with elevated lead levels.  The law is now being adopted by other municipalities across the U.S.
  • EHSC researchers have led the way in identifying the health impacts of vaping and combustible tobacco products.  Research into how the chemicals in flavor tobacco products cause damage to the pulmonary and cardiovascular systems has already helped inform policy makers of the health effects of one of the fastest-growing trends in tobacco use.  This research has been cited in state and federal efforts to ban the sale flavored vaping products.
  • The Seychelles Child Development Study (SCDS) has transformed scientists’ understanding of the relationship between the consumption of fish rich in nutrients necessary for brain development and the possible harmful effects of mercury, which is also found in fish. The study’s findings have global implications as fish represent the main source of protein for much of the world’s population.