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NIH Funds $3 Million Research Grant to Study Kidney Health in Guatemalan Women

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Written by Laura Veith on May 8, 2023

Researchers from the Center for Health, Work, & Environment (CHWE) at the Colorado School of Public Health have received a $3 million research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The five-year R01 grant from the NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences will assess Guatemalan womens’ exposure to air pollution, heat, and kidney toxins in both work and non-work settings. The study will also identify how these environmental hazards could be linked to kidney disease.

Lee Newman, MD, MA, distinguished professor at the University of Colorado (CU), director of CHWE, and principal investigator on this project, has dedicated that three decades of his career to investigating chronic illnesses that affect workers. CHWE has been at the forefront of investigating chronic kidney disease of unknown origin (CKDu) in Guatemalan and Nicaraguan sugarcane workers and is the first group to investigate the disease among women in this region.

This interdisciplinary study, set in rural Guatemala, will address the high incidence of chronic kidney disease occurring internationally, especially in low- and middle-income countries across the globe. Originally thought to affect only men performing manual labor (such as farming) in hot and humid climates, recent studies recognize that rates of kidney disease are rising among women, both who work in agriculture and those who do not perform manual labor but live in these communities in Latin America. This will be the first study to systematically identify potential causes and solutions among women living and working in rural Guatemala and neighboring countries.

“Our Center seeks to improve the lives of workers and their families who face mounting health impacts from climate change,” said Newman. “We’ve made progress in reducing rates of kidney disease in the men who work in agriculture and are eager to determine the environmental hazards that increase women’s risk of contracting this debilitating and often deadly condition.”

Researchers from the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, Colorado State University, and Boston University are collaborating on this project, bringing together the fields of occupational medicine, pulmonary medicine, environmental epidemiology, occupational toxicology, exposure assessment, biostatistics, and dissemination and implementation science. This combined public health and biomedical approach will allow researchers to address both disease prevention and treatment options.

“A key to the success of the project is our continued collaboration with community leaders and Grupo Pantaleon, a Guatemalan agribusiness with operations in Latin America that has become an international model for addressing these health concerns through our public-private partnership,” said Newman.

“There is a need to understand and reduce exposures and risk factors for these women, both at work and home,” said Newman. “We will explore the novel hypothesis that chronic exposures to specific airborne pollutants are increasing risk of this disease. We are taking a Total Worker Health® approach to the issue of CKDu. People’s home lives, preexisting health concerns, and living and working environments all intertwine to impact their overall health and well-being.”

About the Center for Health, Work and Environment

The Center for Health, Work and Environment (CHWE) at the Colorado School of Public Health is one of ten Centers of Excellence for Total Worker Health® and houses the Mountain and Plains Education and Research Center, one of 18 centers of its kind supported by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Main offices for the Center are located at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Colorado. The Center team works with faculty, students, and community partners on numerous projects in occupational and environmental health, safety, and well-being.