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Wayne State University

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Superfund Research Program

Epidemiological Study of Volatile Organic Compounds and Preterm Birth in Detroit

Project Leader: Andrea E. Cassidy-Bushrow (Henry Ford Health System)
Co-Investigator: Jennifer Kornosky Straughen (Henry Ford Health System)
Grant Number: P42ES030991
Funding Period: 2022-2027
View this project in the NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORT)

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Project Summary (2022-2027)

Detroit has the highest preterm birth (PTB) rate of all major United States cities. Although a multifactorial disease, efforts to decrease PTB have not fully considered the complex interrelationships of the environment alongside medical and social determinants of risk. Exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOC) result in adverse health outcomes, including PTB. Considered “a significant public health threat” by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, VOC contamination via vapor intrusion has been confirmed at >4,000 sites statewide. Detroiters are at particularly high risk because of the city’s deteriorating infrastructure, history of being a manufacturing epicenter, and an abundance of older homes with basements – all which increase the likelihood of living and working in structures at-risk for VOC exposure. The research team’s data on births in Detroit show that benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes (BTEX), common VOCs found in petroleum products, are associated with higher PTB risk, with altered maternal inflammation measures mid-pregnancy, and with gene expression changes in the placenta.

To examine their hypothesis that exposure to VOCs increases PTB risk, the researchers establish a prospective birth cohort leveraging clinical resources at Henry Ford Health System (HFHS) in metropolitan Detroit, MI, which delivers >9,500 babies annually, to cost-effectively recruit and follow ~1,100 pregnant women. They conduct a nested case-control study (1:1 frequency matched) within this birth cohort. Prior studies of VOCs and PTB have been inconsistent and limited by use of estimated exposures from single sources and single contaminants. This study addresses these limitations by measuring trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, and BTEX metabolites in maternal urine (three times during pregnancy) and benzene protein adducts in the placenta. Inflammatory biomarkers are measured in maternal blood at three time points over pregnancy and DNA methylation and gene expression is measured in the placenta.

Key specific aims are to:

  • Examine if VOC metabolite levels in maternal urine (prenatal exposure), and/or benzene adduct levels in the placenta (exposure at the maternal-fetal interface) are associated with PTB.
  • Examine if VOC levels are associated with maternal inflammation or altered DNA methylation/gene expression profiles in the placenta and explore if maternal inflammation or placental functional measures mediate associations between VOC exposure and PTB.
  • Identify sources of VOCs associated with VOC levels in maternal urine and the placenta.

This project, using novel methods to quantify VOC levels in humans, provides data directly relevant to the overall goal of CLEAR on health effects of VOC exposure, namely with PTB. Notably, by identifying potential mechanisms of these associations and potential sources of VOCs, the team provides data to CLEAR that help identify both biomedical prevention and environmental remediation strategies to improve the health of vulnerable individuals, in particular, pregnant women and fetuses, and reduce life-long health burdens associated with PTB.

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