The UC Davis Environmental Health Sciences Center mission is to advance understanding of environmentally-induced disease and disability, and develop interventions that reduce harmful exposures or mitigate their effects on health. Our vision for the current period is to work towards accelerating integration of basic science with translational objectives, creatively address community environmental health problems and tackle climate mitigation and adaptation in partnership with various California agencies. Mechanistic research and novel approaches to exposure science will lay the foundation for greater rigor and relevance in these investigations and deep engagement with stakeholders in California’s communities and government will ensure that the results are transformed into actions that reduce morbidity and mortality. As UC Davis is home to both internationally renowned environmental sciences and world-class health systems, the EHS Center strives to build bridges between the two. More broadly, a key strategy to achieving the Center’s vision is changing the culture in the health professions to fully embrace the critical role of environment in bringing about disease and disability; and conversely, to infuse environmental scientists with a similar appreciation for how the ecosystems they study influence health in humans and other animal species with which we share this planet.
UC Davis’ EHSC has been developing and implementing new model systems for toxicologic research. Examples include: a vivarium placed in a real-world location of heavy traffic (Bein & Wexler) now being deployed in a study of Alzheimer’s Disease using genetically susceptible mice (Lein); a zebrafish model for examining reproductive effects using community water sources (Teh); and another fish model based on the Exxon Valdez oil spill for studying embryonic PAH exposures in relation to cardiac development and function (Whitehead). Advantages are not only that the exposure levels are directly relevant to human populations, but also that they represent real-world mixtures, thereby engaging on community concerns and strengthening connections to population or clinical intervention. In other work, a novel human breath sampler to measure metabolomics in condensates provides a relevant technologic innovation with direct application for diagnostics in asthma.
In human studies, UC Davis has been a leader in the field of environmental etiology in autism, identifying the first gene-environment interactions, and more recently, environment-nutrition interaction in autism spectrum disorder (Schmidt). This research demonstrates the implications of multifactorial causation, wherein no single factor is responsible for development of a disease or condition, but rather the effects of any one exposure may depend on the presence of others (Hertz-Picciotto, Schmidt). Thus, improving nutrition can buffer against the impact of toxic chemicals. EHSC researchers are pioneering exploration of environmentally-induced epigenetic and gene expression alterations in the placenta as biomarkers for developing autism spectrum disorder, with the observation that some highly methylated domains may confer greater risk for ASD (Lasalle, Schmidt). Such biomarkers could be critical, as early intervention can alter a child’s developmental trajectory. This research is framed by both discovery-mode and biologically-based conceptualizations of multifactorial causation.
Another major strength at UC Davis is in the area of pulmonary toxicology. Mechanistic studies by EHSC researchers investigating a wide range of exposures have demonstrated inflammatory and immune dysregulatory responses to methyl mercury, which increases transcriptional expression for pro-inflammatory cytokines IL-6 and IL-8 (Vogel); aerosolized silver nanoparticles, which translocate to the rodent olfactory bulb and activate microglia (Van Winkle, Pinkerton); and particulate matter (PM) exposure during early life, which sensitizes the mouse lung to allergen challenges later in life in the absence of PM exposures (Pinkerton).
Community engagement activities of the EHSC are focused primarily on the San Joaquin Valley, but also extend throughout the state. A Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee, consisting of representatives from coalitions concerned with environmental justice, issues of water and air quality and pesticide exposures, promotes the development of community-scientist partnerships. Several community-based or community-instigated pilot projects are in progress: an investigation of community water quality for reproductive effects using an experimental model in zebrafish; an economic analysis of health costs due to the adverse neurocognitive effects from exposures to organophosphate pesticides; a study of particulate air pollution in the region around the Salton Sea; among others.
The EHSC is also engaged in climate-related health concerns. As California has adopted a Climate Change Program covering both mitigation and adaptation and geared to protecting the health and safety of the population and our state’s natural and man-made resources, we are well-positioned to assist. Ongoing EHSC climate-related activities include: attention to enhanced air pollution exposures as ambient temperatures rise (Pinkerton); research on heat strain and associated acute kidney injury among farmworkers (Schenker); a recent workshop on domoic acid, a neurotoxin produced by harmful algal blooms all along the Pacific Coast that is contaminating seafood, requiring shutdowns of fisheries, and harming sea mammals; and a new project on magnification of heat stress in the elderly from housing/neighborhood characteristics (Ko). These latter two were launched in collaboration with California EPA’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.
Finally, EHSC members have served on a range of national advisory committees that influence public policy. Dr. Pessah served on the California EPA Developmental and Reproductive Toxicant Identification Committee (DARTIC) and US EPA Science Advisory Board’s Chemical Assessment Advisory Committee; Dr. Pinkerton serves on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine Committee for Review of the Health Effects of Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS); Dr. Hertz-Picciotto chairs the National Academy of Medicine’s Committee on Veterans and Agent Orange. Dr. Pam Lein serves as an Expert Author for US EPA IRIS Assessment of PCBs and chairs the Scientific Advisory Board for the US Food and Drug Administration National Center for Toxicological Research. Dr. Tony Wexler is a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee, EPA Center for Air, Climate, and Energy Solutions, Carnegie Mellon University and University of Washington. Drs. Van Winkle and Hertz-Picciotto have also been asked to brief federal and/or state representatives in regard to environmental issues. Additionally, the EHSC helped to found Project TENDR (Targeting Environmental Neuro-Development Risks), a consortium of environmental health scientists, representatives of societies of health professionals, and non-governmental health and environmental advocacy organizations. Project TENDR recently released recommendations for lead reduction that have now been adopted by the AMA (American Medical Association).
Irva Hertz-Picciotto, MPH, PhD, Center Director