LSU SRP Research Translation Core Engages Big Buddy Students in Environmental Health Investigations

The Louisiana State University Superfund Research Center Research Translation Core (LSU SRP RTC) would like to thank Big Buddy for sharing their summer with us.  Big Buddy is one of our research translation partners and LSU SRP RTC has provided outreach and education on environmental health topics to Big Buddy’s summer enrichment camps since 2014.  One of the highlights of the 2016 summer program was the opportunity to field test some new kits that focus on topics in environmental health science.  The development of the kits is a collaborative effort between Science Take-Out and researchers from the University of Rochester’s Environmental Health Sciences Center made possible by a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).  None of the activities require special equipment and the lab tests have all been designed to use non-toxic chemicals.

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Left: LSU SRP Research Translation Coordinator Jen Irving discussed common sources of lead and the health effects of lead poisoning. Right: We used the Science Take-Out kit “Lead: An Element of Danger” to explore the health effects of lead.

We learned about how past practices contributed to widespread lead contamination in the United States, how current polices have reduced the amount of lead in our environment, what the health effects of lead poisoning are, and how to avoid exposure to lead.  The kids conducted a simulated blood lead test for a child with suspected lead poisoning and then tested samples of dust, soil, water, and pottery fragments for lead from the child’s home.  Based on the data gathered from our tests, we discussed what the family could do to reduce their exposure to lead.  We were also able to compare the information about the lead poisoning scenario in the kit with the real world lead contamination event occurring in Flint, Michigan.

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Left: Students tested simulated water samples for nitrates, coliform bacteria, and arsenic using the “Safe Water” kit. Right: The simulated tests showed that the family’s well water was contaminated with coliform bacteria and nitrates but that municipal tap water and bottled water were not.

We used the “Safe Water” and “A Case of Pesticide Poisoning” kits to explore the concept of how land use practices can impact both human and environmental health.  With the “Safe Water” kit, we conducted simulated water quality tests to determine if well water contamination was behind an infant’s failure to thrive.  The results of the tests indicated that the family’s well was contaminated with both nitrates and coliform bacteria.  We then discussed possible sources of the contamination, options for dealing with water contamination, and the pros and cons of using bottled water as a precaution.

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Left: Participants tested simulated urine for pesticide metabolites. Right: The components of the “A Case of Pesticide Poisoning” kit.

The activities in “A Case of Pesticide Poisoning” followed the same pattern as the other two kits:  a family starts to feel sick and the kids get to investigate what is causing the symptoms.  In this case, we explored some of the common pesticides used in the United States, where they are used (including the “foggers” used in homes to kill pests like roaches, fleas, and bed bugs), and how the improper use of pesticides can lead to problems.

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Left: LSU SRP Research Translation Core Leader Maud Walsh discussed the importance of reading product labels. Right: LSU SRP Undergraduate Trainee Grace LeBlanc helped Big Buddy participants “trap” the iron in cereal with hand-held magnets.

While the Science Take-Out kits were an exciting new addition to our summer enrichment program, we also used other hands-on activities to bring home some core concepts in environmental health science.  One of these is the idea that there are chemicals all around us, often added to the food we eat and the products we use, and it is the dosage and proper use of these items that determine its safety.  Iron added to cereal is great example of this.

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Left: Grace LeBlanc explained how to construct the lung simulator. Right: We used simulated lungs and particulate matter (talcum powder in squirt bottles) to explore how particulate pollution can enter the respiratory tract.

Since our Center focuses on the health effects of environmental persistent free radicals (EPFRs), which may be formed by combustion, no education or outreach program would be complete without some activities dedicated to air pollution and respiratory health.  LSU SRP undergraduate trainee Grace LeBlanc led hands-on activities that demonstrated how smoking harms the lungs and how fine particulate matter (PM) can enter the respiratory tract.

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Left: Participants built air pollution molecules with LEGOs™. Right: Students also created structures inspired by our exploration of environmental health science topics.

We were truly amazed by the types of questions these hands-on activities generated and hope to work with Big Buddy again soon!

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