Watkins Receives NIEHS Award to Study Impacts of Hurricane-related Exposure and Stress on Pregnancy Outcomes and Child Development in Puerto Rico

Dr. Deborah Watkins, a researcher for both PROTECT’s Project 1 and CRECE’s Project 3, has been awarded a grant by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to study the impacts Hurricane Maria has had on pregnant women, pregnancy outcomes, and early child development in Puerto Rico.

Specifically, Watkins aims to study environmental exposures and psychological stress amongst women within the PROTECT cohort who were pregnant when Hurricane Maria struck the island (93 in total) and how these impacts may be influencing preterm birth rates, birth weight, and measures of early child development. According to Watkins, the lengthy recovery period following Hurricane Maria has likely increased exposures to environmental contaminants due to extensive use of gas powered generators, use of water from uncertain sources for drinking, cooking, and washing, and increased consumption of canned and packaged foods, all with potential impacts on health. She also noted that “Experiencing a traumatic natural disaster can itself also have long-term physical and psychological health effects. Exposure to such events during pregnancy has been associated with increased risk of preterm birth, low birth weight, and other adverse birth outcomes.”

Watkin’s study, which will draw from existing biological samples, prenatal data, and survey responses collected from the PROTECT cohort shortly following the hurricane, will likely be the first to evaluate measures of both chemical exposure and stress both before and after a hurricane in the same population. Crucially, this research will potentially allow for the identification of specific, modifiable, hurricane-related risk factors for adverse birth outcomes and child development. In describing the need for this research, Watkins said, “Prior to Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s preterm birth rate was already among the highest within the U.S. and the world, so identifying individuals in need of help, as well as modifiable risk factors within this highly vulnerable population is critical.”

In addition to relying on data from the PROTECT cohort, Watkins’ work will leverage connections with the Center’s Human Subjects and Sampling Core (HSSC). This core, which is led by José F. Cordero, Carmen Milagros Vélez Vega, and Zaira Rosario-Pabón, has been extremely active in coordinating hurricane recovery efforts on the island–collaborating with other groups to ensure the safety and welfare of team members, study participants, community health center partners, and members of the surrounding communities.

Watkins is an environmental epidemiologist and an Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University Of Michigan School Of Public Health. She studies the impact environmental exposures can have on birth outcomes and child development, and has made incalculable contributions towards both the CRECE and PROTECT Center’s goals.

Congrats, Deb! The PROTECT and CRECE teams are proud of this major achievement!