What is the MIEHR Center?

The goal of the MIEHR Research Center is to understand what drives disparities in the health of pregnant women and their infants, with a focus on the impact of environmental health disparities. The MIEHR Center is funded by the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) (P50MD015496).

The MIEHR Research Center is led by Director Elaine Symanski and Co-Director Kristina W. Whitworth.

Why conduct research on disparities in maternal and children’s environmental health?

Black mothers in the United States continue to experience higher rates of poor pregnancy outcomes. For example, Black mothers are more likely than White mothers to have problems with pregnancy, such as high blood pressure (preeclampsia) or to deliver their babies too soon (preterm birth). We worry about preterm birth because it can lead to other health problems for the child. These differences in pregnancy outcomes between Black and White mothers are not fully explained by medical reasons or by what things might be inherited. That’s why we want to understand if there are other factors, such as things in the environment, that may be contributing to poor outcomes among Black mothers.

The “environment” means different things to different people. We think about environment in terms of the social environment (like the groups to which we belong, the quality of schools, or access to healthy foods), the built environment (like open spaces, nearby parks and buildings), and the physical environment (like chemicals in the air that we breathe and in the water that we drink).

Diagram showing how mother and child health and well-being is a relationship between biological factors and the built, physical and social environments.

We also think about other aspects of the environment, including the stress people might feel because of the color of their skin or the amount of money they have available to live on, to buy food, or pay rent. Also, communities of color often experience a heavier burden of all these environmental stressors and their impact on their neighborhoods.

We think that each of these types of environmental stressors may play a role in understanding why Black mothers have worse pregnancy outcomes than White mothers.  The research we are doing at the MIEHR Research Center is designed to help us better understand how these factors impact pregnancy.

Why investigate the environment’s role in health disparities in Houston?

The greater Houston area offers an ideal location for environmental health disparities research for many reasons as it is home to a diverse population and multiple sources of environmental exposure including:

  • The largest petrochemical complex in the U.S.
  • One of the busiest seaports in the world
  • Heavily trafficked roadways
  • Many hazardous waste and Superfund sites in and around the city

Houston also has no zoning, which means that many waste sites and industries are located near (or within) neighborhoods and most often these communities are predominantly poor and minority.  We refer to these communities as environmental justice (EJ) neighborhoods where multiple factors, including both chemical (environmental) and non-chemical (socioeconomic) stressors, may act over time and contribute to environmental health disparities.