We currently have two studies to learn about how environmental exposures during pregnancy may increase the chance of babies being born too soon or affect a mother’s health while she is pregnant.

What is the impact of exposure to a mixture of metals on preterm birth?

Lead: Dr. Kristina W. Whitworth, Co-Lead: Dr. Hector Mendez-Figueroa

We are asking non-Hispanic Black and non-Hispanic White mothers to participate in this study. We will use samples (a little bit of blood and urine) that women volunteer to give us around the time they deliver their babies to help us understand whether chemicals in the environment can be linked to delivering a baby early.

One type of environmental chemical that we are concerned about is metals (such as cadmium, arsenic, and lead). Possible sources of these environmental chemicals include: 1) Traffic-related pollution; 2) Industrial and hazardous waste sites; and 3) Being near to someone who is smoking cigarettes, cigars, or tobacco pipes.

One goal of this study will be to understand if coming into contact with these chemicals can contribute to differences between non-Hispanic Black and non-Hispanic White mothers in their chances of delivering their babies early.

Black mothers also experience other non-chemical stressors in their environments that contribute to stress levels. Some examples include:

  • Discrimination
  • Poverty
  • Access to healthy food
  • Access to parks
  • Living in segregated neighborhoods
  • Living in neighborhoods with high crime rates

Another goal of this study is to examine whether mothers who experience these kinds of stressors and are exposed to chemicals have an even greater chance of delivering their baby early as compared to mothers who do not experience these stressors.

What factors in the built, social, biological, and physical environments affect preterm birth?

Lead: Dr. Elaine Symanski, Co-Lead: Dr. Cristian Coarfa

Delivering a baby early, like other health outcomes, may be caused by many factors. In our second investigation, we are focused on which factors in the physical, biological, social, and built environments are most important in terms of explaining whether a baby is born too soon, and whether these factors are different between non-Hispanic Black and non-Hispanic White mothers.

In this study, we will ask women to volunteer and provide biological samples, including some blood, urine, and a mouth swab, around the time they deliver their baby to help us understand which things in the environment best determines which women will deliver a baby too soon. In addition to a mother’s exposure to chemicals, such as metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), we are curious about how other factors may affect her pregnancy, including:

  • Her prior health history
  • What she eats
  • Characteristics of her neighborhood (for example, the number of parks or supermarkets that are nearby or how close her neighborhood is to a major road or industrial plant)
  • Bacteria (also called the microbiome) inside her body
  • Whether she has received prenatal care
  • Any stress that she has
  • Discrimination that she may have experienced

When we sort out all these pieces of the puzzle and apply a classifier (rules for organizing a lot of data) using a bioinformatics approach, we hope to learn which combination of things affect whether a woman will have a baby too early, and whether this combination of factors is different between non-Hispanic Black and non-Hispanic White mothers.