The University of Rochester’s Paige Lawrence and her team at the Environmental Health Sciences Center will be able to continue their work examining how exposure to environmental agents impacts human health. The center recently received a $7.7 million, five-year renewal federal grant.

The monies from the National Institute of Environmental Health Science marks five decades of support for UR’s center, which has drawn more than $100 million in extramural funding since its inception in 1975, officials say. It is led by Lawrence, the Wright Family Research professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Medicine.

Paige Lawrence, director, EHSC
(Photo: UR)

EHSC’s mission: to improve public health “through the discovery of the ways by which environmental exposures, singly or in combination, contribute to health risk across the lifespan, and to translate discoveries into strategies to mitigate risks and improve human health.”

With a focus on lab work that investigates how environmental chemicals contribute to disease and impact population health, the center aims to provide researchers access to resources and facilities. It also supports programs that trains the next generation of environmental health investigators. The center’s community engagement core works with community organizations, local governments and health professionals to address environmental health issues through education and outreach.

Perhaps the most visible influence of EHSC’s work in the recent past is the formation of the Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning in Rochester. Roughly two decades ago, studies showed that children the city of Rochester suffered from high blood lead levels 10 times more than the national rate. The center’s researchers were involved in helping to identify sources of lead dust in homes and creative ways of abatement. A city lead law, now adopted by other municipalities nationwide, contributed to a 90 percent decrease in children with elevated lead levels.

Elevated lead levels can damage the brain, leading to learning disabilities, behavioral challenges and other health deficits across a child’s lifespan. The Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning remains an education and advocacy agency that empowers communities and residents to prevent lead poisoning.

The center’s influence has also been felt globally. The Seychelles Child Development Study, for example, involves the ministries of health and education in Seychelles, the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland and UR. The project, which began in the mid-1980s, studies factors that may suggest links between mercury exposure and child development, including disabilities like autism. 

The popularity of vaping has led researchers to investigate chemicals in flavored tobacco products and their impact on the body. The findings have helped inform policy and are used in efforts to ban the sale of flavored vaping products, UR says.

Still, not enough people understand the role of environmental health specialists. A Pew Research report in 2019 found that though respondents had a positive view of these researchers, only 12 percent said they knew a lot about this line of work. Sixty-three percent said they knew a little.

As the world tries to understand pollutants and harsh chemicals, Rochester could have an edge. It has one of 26 NIEHS-designated core centers of excellence in environmental health research in the United States.

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.