As the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, Haiti is in a constant struggle to provide its population access to safe, clean drinking water.
While waterborne illnesses such as cholera and other diarrheal diseases are of serious concern, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis want to know if toxic metals in drinking water pose an added significant, understudied public health risk. Nutrition is compromised in Haiti, with one in five children suffering from stunted growth.
Samples were taken from water pumps, wells, and kiosks that sell portable and/or bottled water in Cap- Haitien, Haiti. The samples were shipped back to Washington University where they were analyzed for 25 elements including toxic metals such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium and lead
The project is part of a larger research agenda and builds on a study that Iannotti has been conducting in Cap-Haitien, where for the past five years, she has been doing nutrition research and public health interventions on children. Specifically, she led a randomized controlled trial on a nutritional supplement for improving linear growth. Her findings showed that the beneficial effect of the supplement was limited by water quality and hygiene conditions.
Rivera-Núñez and Iannotti wanted to further investigate the link between metals and nutrition, and asked Giammar to support their effort. The results of the water quality study will be integrated with data collected from Iannotti during her earlier randomized trial.
Important to the research was local participation, something the I-CARES funding made possible. Researchers collaborated with government institutions in Haiti as well as students from a local university in Cap-Haïtien (Université Publique du Nord au Cap Haïtien). In addition, a PhD student from the Department of Energy, Environmental, and Chemical Engineering at Giammar’s laboratory conducted the majority of the analytical activities and graduate students from the Brown School participated in on-site sampling activities.
“This project is a step towards building stronger collaborations between the Public Health Program at the Brown School and the School of Engineering and Applied Science to study water quality and nutrition dimensions of sustainable development,” Rivera- Núñez said. “This cross-school collaboration will support future work in Haiti and other research sites.”
The water-quality research is unique as there is no previous data available in Cap-Haitien for comparison purposes.
“We feel like the pilot study financed by this I-CARES grant is a really great way for us to build a foundation to the bigger research project,” Iannotti said. “This grant now gives us the data evidence to argue for even larger grants.”
“Obtaining seed money these days is so hard,” added Rivera- Núñez. “I really like how I-CARES uses its money wisely in that it funds a lot of people.”
Using the preliminary data from the I-CARES funded project, the researchers submitted a grant proposal in February to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences titled “The Gut Microbiome and Chemical Exposure Interactions in Children.” They’re also writing their first manuscript titled “Water, Metals and Nutrition in Haiti: A Transdisciplinary Approach to Public Health Challenges in Developing Countries.”