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$3 Million NIH Grant for Colorado School of Public Health Worker Health Study

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Written by Laura Veith on March 25, 2021

Three groups from the Colorado School of Public Health (ColoradoSPH) have been awarded a $3 million 5-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the effects of air pollution and climate on the kidney health of sugarcane workers in Guatemala. The award provides funding to identify how air pollutants contribute to chronic kidney disease of unknown origin (CKDu), a growing international epidemic.

This interinstitutional and interdisciplinary team will be led by principal investigators John Adgate, PhD, MSPH, from the Environmental and Occupational Health department at the ColoradoSPH at the University of Colorado; Lee Newman, MD, MA from the Center for Health, Work & Environment (CHWE) at the ColoradoSPH at the University of Colorado; and Joshua Schaeffer, PhD, from the ColoradoSPH at Colorado State University. They will examine an unusual hypothesis that inhaled contaminated air and dust may cause kidney damage among sugarcane workers. In many countries, sugarcane fields are burned prior to harvesting the cane, emitting airborne pollutants that can contribute to adverse health effects.

The research team's preliminary work, and that of other researchers, strongly suggests that throughout the harvest, sugarcane workers are exposed to air particles, soil, and ash containing silica, metals, and the agrochemical glyphosate and that these exposures may impact kidney health. This study will be one of the first to relate kidney dysfunction to not only inhalation exposure, but also to the effects of exposure to hot working conditions and dehydration. Sugarcane cutters who participate in the study will wear air pollution monitors in backpacks while they work. A team from CHWE will be in the fields monitoring the workers' health while simultaneously measuring pollution, heat, and humidity.

"Agricultural workers have always had an unacceptably high risk for work-related injuries and illness. Now the stakes are even higher because of rising global temperatures and increasing rates of chronic illness," said Dr. Lee Newman. "What we are learning with our collaborators in Guatemala has the potential to help workers back in the U.S. and abroad."

The investigators will be working with Pantaleon, one of Latin America's largest agribusinesses, that CHWE has partnered with to conduct research over the last five years. Thanks to this collaboration, the team has a unique opportunity to disseminate its findings not only through research publications, but also by communicating with other international business organizations. The team will use this public-private partnership to broaden the impact and translation of science into practice.

"When we think about air pollution, scientists usually look for damage to the lungs and heart. But when we breathe in dust, the smallest particles can pass into the bloodstream and also lodge in the kidneys," said Dr. Newman. "If we can show that the dusty work is contributing to kidney damage, there are important, practical steps that agribusinesses can take to prevent this epidemic of kidney failure."