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UA Receives $2.98M for Collaborative Study to Reduce Hazardous Chemical Exposure in the Workplace


Researchers at the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health have received a five-year, $2.98 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to reduce exposures to hazardous chemicals in the workplace. 

The study will focus on two high-risk industries on the south side of Tucson that employ primarily Latino workers – auto repair shops and beauty salons. The team will work in collaboration with El Rio Community Health Center and the Sonora Environmental Research Institute Inc., both longtime partners of the UA Zuckerman College of Public Health. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a 22-percent increase in fatal work injuries by exposure to harmful substances or environments in the 2016 National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, released in December.

Many small businesses use solvents, including volatile organic chemicals  associated with asthma, cancer, cardiovascular and neurological diseases. The new study will involve training community health workers – members of the community who provide basic health education – to identify hazardous chemicals in auto repair shops and beauty salons, and to work with the businesses to design and implement controls to reduce exposure.  

Paloma I. Beamer, PhD

“This study is an incredible example of how the University of Arizona translates scientific knowledge into real-world solutions that can positively impact the health of people right here in Arizona," said UA President Robert C. Robbins. “I am proud that the College of Public Health is doing this in partnership with two respected community organizations, and I look forward to seeing the effect of their interventions as well as the potential for use by other industries throughout the nation.” 

"Although preventable by definition, occupational disease and injuries are leading causes of death in the United States," said Paloma I. Beamer, PhD, environmental engineer and associate professor of environmental health sciences at the UA Zuckerman College of Public Health and the study’s principal investigator. “Unfortunately, low-wage minority workers bear most of the burden of occupational disease.”

The project will determine if face-to-face interaction with community health workers increases the capacity of workers with marginalized status, limited education and reduced access to health care to understand workplace hazards and effective control options to reduce exposures and prevent occupational disease. 

“Ultimately, by reducing workplace exposures at the source, we may also reduce air pollution in these neighborhoods and impact the surrounding community’s health,” Dr. Beamer said.

Dr. Beamer’s research focuses on understanding how individuals are exposed to environmental contaminants and the health risks of these exposures with a special focus on vulnerable populations, including children, low-wage immigrant workers, Native Americans and individuals in the U.S.-Mexico border region. 

Dr. Beamer, who is president-elect of the International Society of Exposure Science, says the ultimate goal of her work is to design more effective interventions and policies for the prevention of avoidable cases of certain diseases, such as asthma.

The partnerships with the Sonora Environmental Research Institute and the El Rio Community Health Center are critical to the success of this project, she said. During the past 20 years, the institute has established a community health worker program focused on environmental health, including pollution prevention by small businesses, which was highlighted in the Good Neighbor Environmental Board’s report to the president and Congress on Innovative and Practical Approaches to Solving Border Environmental Problems, 2009

The Sonora Environmental Research Institute started its pollution-prevention business program in 2008 with a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. The study was co-led by Eric Betterton, PhD, distinguished professor and head of the UA Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences. During the three-year project, from 2008 to 2011, the community health worker-led pollution-prevention program reached 642 small and home-based businesses. Program activities included technical training for community health workers and businesses, generation of culturally and language-appropriate educational materials, and face-to-face peer education through frequent on-site visits. 

Dr. Beamer’s project will build on this foundation by adding industrial hygiene and health-promotion expertise, along with an assessment of exposure reduction. 

The El Rio Community Health Center will provide health screenings to small-business employees, ensuring they are connected to health-care services and emphasizing the importance of health promotion in the workplace.

After gathering information about the businesses and measuring exposures, the team will work with the business owners, employees, community health workers and trade groups to design an intervention focused on reducing the sources of dangerous workplace exposures. Then they will implement the intervention in a formal clinical trial, evaluate its effectiveness and identify factors that led the businesses to use exposure control strategies.

Working with Dr. Beamer on this occupational exposure study is a multidisciplinary team from the UA Zuckerman College of Public Health: Melanie Bell, PhD, professor of biostatistics; Scott Carvajal, PhD, MPH, professor, health promotion sciences; Maia Ingram, MPH, program director, community based evaluation projects; Nancy Johnson, CEO, El Rio Community Health Center; and Ann Marie Wolf, president, Sonora Environmental Research Institute Inc.

NIH, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Department of Health and Human Services Grant No.: 1R01ES028250-01A1

About the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health

Established in 2000, the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona Health Sciences is the first nationally accredited college of public health in the Southwest. Today the college remains the only accredited college of public health in Arizona with campuses in Tucson and Phoenix. The college enrolls more than 1,100 students per year across degree programs at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels. Through research, education and community engagement, the UA Zuckerman College of Public Health continues to find solutions to public health problems in Arizona, the Southwest and globally. For more information: (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter)

About Sonora Environmental Research Institute, Inc.

The Sonora Environmental Research Institute, Inc., is a community-based, nonprofit, tax-exempt organization created in 1994 as a community participatory research institute dedicated to providing unbiased research to disadvantaged and marginalized communities to solve their environmental challenges and build healthy and safe neighborhoods. Southern Arizona communities face past, present and future environmental problems, including pollution, water scarcity and rising temperatures. Economically disadvantaged communities are disproportionately impacted and have the least resources to develop solutions. For more than 20 years SERI has partnered with neighborhoods under economic, environmental and health stress and helped determine the risks to which the residents are exposed and actions to be taken to reduce those risks. SERI conducts risk reduction and healthy homes interventions, provides technical assistance, conducts community participatory research, offers educational opportunities, responds to community needs and implements programs to make immediate and long-term impacts. For more information:

About El Rio Community Health Center 

El Rio Health is the largest provider of medical and dental services to uninsured and Medicaid populations in Pima County. With 13 campuses in Tucson, El Rio serves the medical and dental needs of more than 96,000 people annually. El Rio employs over 1,150 people with an annual budget of over $140 million. A national model of health care excellence, El Rio’s mission is to “improve the health of our community through comprehensive, accessible, affordable, quality and compassionate care.” For more information:

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