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Boston University

Superfund Research Program

Assessing the Relation of Chemical and Non-Chemical Stressors with Risk-Taking Behavior and Related Outcomes among Adolescents Living near the New Bedford Harbor Superfund Site

Project Leader: Jonathan I. Levy
Grant Number: P42ES007381
Funding Period: 2017-2021
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Project Summary (2017-2021)

Manifestations of risk-taking behavior in adolescents, such as teen pregnancy and underage drinking, represent major public health problems with substantial economic and social costs. Adolescent risk-taking is multifactorial, and strongly influenced by sociodemographics, gender, peer behavior, and community factors, including neighborhood crime. In addition, evidence suggests that early life exposure to neurotoxicants that impede development of the prefrontal cortex, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), lead (Pb) and methylmercury (MeHg), may contribute to risk-taking and its neuropsychological correlates. Identifying preventable environmental risk factors that contribute to increased risk-taking behavior is a public health priority, especially among communities exposed to multiple chemical and non-chemical stressors, as is often the case near Superfund sites.

The main goal of this Boston University Superfund Research Program (BU SRP) Center project is to investigate the relationship of prenatal exposure to chemical and non-chemical stressors with adolescents' risk-taking and related behaviors for the community living near the New Bedford Harbor (NBH) Superfund Site. The research team focuses their work on prenatal exposure to mixtures of prevalent organochlorines (PCBs, DDE) and neurotoxic metals (Pb, MeHg, manganese, and arsenic), and considers how risks are modified by non-chemical stressors and sociodemographic factors. They are leveraging extensive exposure and behavioral measures available from a well-characterized longitudinal birth cohort study (the New Bedford Cohort or NBC of children born 1993-1998, with 528 followed through adolescence). They also conduct analyses within a much larger longitudinal population-based dataset of relevant outcomes and sociodemographic risk factors available from the Massachusetts Pregnancy to Early Life Longitudinal (PELL) data system, with over 12,000 New Bedford area births (including all NBC participants) during the same time period. They are performing complementary epidemiologic analyses using the NBC and PELL data to characterize the relation of early life chemical and non-chemical exposures with risk-taking behaviors among New Bedford area adolescents born in the 1990s. These analyses employ state-of-the-art methods for assessing the effects of complex exposure mixtures and involve an integrated effort with the Community Engagement Core and the BU SRP community partners (e.g., NorthStar).

The epidemiologic analyses are highly innovative in their capacity to characterize a comprehensive continuum of risk-taking-related outcomes (from psychometric test measures to hospitalizations for clinical disorders). This research will support future health risk modeling to connect findings from the two epidemiologic analysis with novel approaches to exposure characterization. Their health risk estimates will provide insight into the community and other stakeholders about the benefits of interventions that could improve conditions in New Bedford, and thereby decrease future health risk.

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