Engineering Better Health

Feb. 7, 2020

Environmental contaminants can pose a major health risk. Enter Paloma Beamer, whose work in exposure science aims to protect even the most vulnerable among us.

Saguaro cacti at sunset

Exposure to environmental contaminants can have significant and lasting negative effects on human health. Often, exposure is the result of an occupational hazard and disproportionately affects those in lower income brackets and other vulnerable populations. Contaminants include volatile organic chemicals, metals, pesticides and traffic-related air pollutants. Both environmental and work exposures can cause or aggravate a variety of conditions and are associated with cancer, respiratory health, neurological problems and adverse birth outcomes.

Exposure science — devoted to studying the event of contact with a toxic material — is complex and diverse, but its importance is passionately articulated by those in the field. Leading the charge is Paloma Beamer, environmental engineer and associate professor of environmental health sciences at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona. Beamer explains that how people are exposed to chemicals depends on a variety of factors, including their personal activities, behaviors, lifestyles and location.

“We are focused on trying to improve our understanding and estimates of people’s exposures,” Beamer says. “Better estimates allow us to better understand how these exposures affect health and how to better design interventions to reduce these exposures.”

Current Challenges — and Opportunities Ahead

Exposure science is a relatively young field. “Although you can’t have negative health consequences from environmental contaminants without exposure, there is still very little emphasis on exposure science,” Beamer says. In fact, exposure assessment is usually the most uncertain component of risk assessments and environmental epidemiology studies. And there is a need for greater funding for exposure assessment studies. “With the increasing concern about the effects of environmental exposures on health, we cannot design effective interventions or policies without knowing how these exposures are occurring,” Beamer says.

A mechanic's hands working on a car

Researchers at the University of Arizona received a $2.98 million grant to examine the effects of two high-risk industries: beauty salons and auto repair shops.

Fortunately, funding is in place for some key research in exposure science. Under Beamer’s purview is a five-year study, financed by a $2.98 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, to reduce exposures to hazardous chemicals in the workplace.

“We are working on a clinical trial to see if community health workers can reduce hazardous exposures to volatile organic chemicals in small businesses like beauty salons and auto repair shops,” says Beamer. “One of the exciting aspects is that this clinical trial is based on reducing exposures to a class of chemicals with similar properties rather than a singular environmental exposure and health outcome.”

As an example of how successful this approach can be, Beamer points to the substantial advances made in public health by reducing smoking rates in the general population rather than by designing studies that focus on reducing exposure to one of the more than 500 chemicals in tobacco smoke or assessing health changes, such as lung cancer, with a long latency period.

In collaboration with El Rio Community Health Center and Sonora Environmental Research Institute Inc., the study focuses on two high-risk industries — beauty salons and auto repair shops — in Tucson that employ primarily Latino workers. In studying preventable occupational diseases and injuries, particularly those that have an outsized effect on certain groups, Beamer is expanding our understanding of how exposure affects vulnerable populations in particular.

A Unique Voice in the Field

The Hoover dam

Beamer’s role involves many commitments. She holds joint appointments as an associate professor of chemical and environmental engineering and as a research scientist in the Asthma and Airway Disease Research Center. This year she began her term as president of the International Society of Exposure Science, a global consortium of exposure science professionals working to advance the field.

“I have to say it is never boring,” she says. Spending time in the field, in academia and on international panels offers its share of challenges and exhaustion. But the high points can be profound. In 2016, Beamer led a team of UA researchers and Navajo community health representatives to recruit families to assess exposures to lead and arsenic from the Gold King Mine spill. “We did all the training, recruitment and sampling across three communities within five days,” she says. “It was a very intense but successful week, where we often had to troubleshoot problems as they occurred.”

After the long, physical days in the field, Beamer found herself in Washington, D.C., wearing a suit and reviewing a new draft of the Environmental Protection Agency’s guidelines for exposure assessment. “I was one of few women, the only person of color, one of the youngest, and also the only person from west of the Mississippi on the panel,” she recalls. “While it was clear this would give me a unique voice, having just led an exposure assessment to a major environmental hazard in an indigenous rural community allowed me to speak with greater authority on this panel — and assure that the voices and experiences of these marginalized communities have their seat at the table.”

With professionals such as Beamer leading the way, more interventions and policies for the prevention of adverse health outcomes are on the horizon — for all of us.