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Geography Professor and Team Receive Grant to Study Post-Hurricane Birth Outcomes

June 26, 2019

Associate Professor of Geography Christopher Uejio is part of a research team that has been awarded more than $400,000 by the National Institutes of Health to study how Hurricane Michael impacted birth outcomes in the Florida panhandle.

The team, which includes FSU College of Medicine Chair of Behavioral Sciences and Social Medicine Les Beitsch and Tulane University researchers Emily Harville (principal investigator) and Maureen Lichtveld, is particularly interested in how infrastructure damage and exposure to carbon monoxide (CO) may have increased stress/trauma or decreased access to healthcare.

Hurricane Michael came ashore on the Florida Panhandle on October 10, 2018, causing widespread property damage, storm surge, power outages and coastal erosion. The storm had rapidly intensified, increasing from a category 2 to a powerful category 5 storm in 24 hours, which limited evacuation and increased the size of the population at risk, according to the National Ocean Service.

In addition to decreasing access to health care due to extensive destruction and long periods without electricity, the disaster likely increased opportunities for exposures to respiratory toxicants, especially CO, as people operated generators during prolonged power outages.

CO is a poisonous gas, common in badly ventilated areas with a combustion source. CO poisoning during pregnancy has been associated with fetal demise, severe neurological complications, intrauterine growth retardation, preterm delivery and birth defects.

Air pollution studies also indicate relationships with ambient CO exposure and preterm birth, low birth weight and growth restriction.

Negative effects on fetal growth and birth weight have been seen fairly consistently after a disaster, but disaster, in and of itself, does not seem to shorten gestation. Previous studies of environmental disasters largely indicate that although the physical effects of environmental disasters are usually the major source of concern, psychological effects of these disasters can be more significant. Pregnant women may be especially vulnerable.

The disaster may have also increased opportunities for exposure to harmful algae blooms (HAB), which release neurotoxins and respiratory and digestive irritants. In long power outages, people tend to open windows to stay cool, allowing airborne pollutants to enter their homes.

"We are unaware of previous studies addressing HABs or CO poisoning in pregnant women after disaster," Uejio said. "The disaster literature has limited integration of environmental exposures with general disaster measures such as structure damage, stress and trauma."

The study will compare birth outcomes in areas exposed to these environmental predictors to areas and times without exposure. The findings will be disseminated through a partnership between the research team and the Florida Association of Community Health Centers and the Florida State Association for County Health Officers.