It’s all in the wrist

October 13, 2016

To investigate the link between environmental chemical exposure and adverse health effects, four Indiana University researchers are planning to use a tool similar to what millions of Americans wear on their wrists.

Michael Hendryx of the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington, Jessica Gall Myrick of The Media School, and Marta Venier and Amina Salamova of the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs have been awarded a $470,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to examine the relationship between coal mining in the Appalachian region and health problems in the people living there. The researchers plan to use silicone bracelets, often worn to show support for a cause or sold as a fundraiser, to gather information for their study.

Venier and Salamova, both research scientists at SPEA, have done extensive research into the persistence of flame-retardant chemicals in the environment. They’ve used passive sampling in their research before, but the wristbands will be a new way for them to learn about their subjects’ environments.

After learning of a pioneering study by Oregon State University’s Kim Anderson that showed the wristbands are capable of absorbing more than 1,000 different chemicals, the researchers decided to incorporate them into the study.

The researchers will seek to learn whether people who live in coal-mining communities are exposed to pollutants associated with increased risk of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

Salamova says using the bracelets to measure exposure to pollutants is innovative.

“It’s never been done with silicone bracelets,” she says.

The convenience factor is one of the bracelets’ greatest benefits. “They’re noninvasive; you just wear a bracelet,” Venier says. She also said the “equipment” is quite inexpensive.

Hendryx began to investigate health problems in coal-mining communities after moving to West Virginia in 2006. He joined the IU faculty as a professor of applied health science in 2013.

“People who lived in these communities believed there were public health risks related to mining, especially related to mountaintop removal mining,” Hendryx says. “When I examined the research literature I could find practically nothing on the topic of public health risks.”

That led Hendryx to investigate the issue and publish a series of epidemiological studies. Later he began to examine environmental conditions, finding polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and possibly flame retardants, present in higher concentrations in mining communities than other areas.

Myrick is developing a plan to communicate the results to health and safety professionals and to residents in the coal mining region. “We want to tell them what the bracelets tell us so that they can take appropriate action,” Myrick says.

Although the IU team won’t be the first to conduct experiments with silicone bracelets, Venier believes the study was funded in part because of its potential to expand knowledge of how silicone bracelets can be used.

“It comes with a lot of unknowns,” she says, adding that the researchers need to conduct pilot studies to find out the rate of absorption of the bracelets and the relationship with internal exposure. “It’s not a well-studied sampling method compared to some others.”

Hendryx says the use of the bracelets struck him as potentially influential.

“Not many people anywhere in the country have tried using this approach,” he says. “I think the approach may have much larger potential than our current application; it could be applied to a variety of possible exposure environments for other populations.”

The researchers will also use passive air samplers to gauge ambient levels of potentially harmful chemicals in both indoor and outdoor environments.