Research Focus Areas

Through work on three specific Research Focus Areas, the Center fosters interdisciplinary collaboration, bringing together diverse combinations of basic, clinical and epidemiologic scientists to address emerging environmental health science issues. Under these thematic groups, we have highlighted some of the latest collaborative studies aimed at understanding environmental effects on health.

Cardiopulmonary Disease

boy_inhalerspacerAir pollution is a dominant driver of environmental disease in the US and worldwide. A primary focus of study in the Cardiopulmonary Disease Research Focus Area is on how air pollutants such as ozone, particulate matter (PM) and smoke affect respiratory and cardiac function and activity. UNC-CEHS researchers investigate disease outcomes such as asthma, influenza and heart attacks.

Our state continues to be challenged by persistent health disparities in disease incidence and survival by race/ethnicity, a pattern particularly evident for heart disease and chronic lung disease among adults, and asthma among children. To better understand these disparities, UNC-CEHS researchers are conducting a genome-wide, trans-ethnic search for genetic variants that increase susceptibility to the effects of ambient particulate matter (PM) air pollution on stroke, heart attack and sudden cardiac death. In addition, Center researchers are collaborating with the UNC-CEHS COEC to help translate cardiopulmonary research findings and provide various education and outreach activities related to asthma and healthy homes issues.

Furthermore, access to the Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma and Lung Biology (CEMALB) laboratory facilities and the NC Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute (NC TraCS, UNC CTSA) resources enables CEHS investigators to extend basic science, mechanistic and other animal findings into human studies. This work, in turn, enables examination of gene-environment interactions and the testing of potential interventions in focused, proof-of-concept studies.

David Peden, PhD; Department of Pediatrics
Email: Phone: (919) 966-0768

Developmental Disease

pregnant Latino womanThe prenatal and childhood periods are sensitive windows for susceptibility to toxic effects from environmental exposures. The Developmental Disease Research Focus Area aims to identify adverse developmental outcomes attributable to environmental pollutants like arsenic, phthalates, PBDEs, and air pollution. The developmental disorders investigated by UNC-CEHS reseachers include:

  • adverse birth outcomes,
  • attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD),
  • autism spectrum disorders (ASD),
  • birth defects, and
  • childhood obesity

Map showing arsenic exposure levels, with increasing intensity of color representing increased exposure. Brown areas are above EPA recommended limits.

In North Carolina, drinking water contaminated with metals is a growing public health concern as 2.3 million residents get their drinking water from private wells, which are not regulated by the state or required to be tested for contaminants. UNC-CEHS researchers recently partnered with UNC Superfund Research Program (SRP) researchers to discover that areas with elevated levels of arsenic were associated with a higher prevalence of birth defects. UNC-CEHS COEC, with input from Center researchers, is leading efforts to reduce metals-induced disease during these early windows of susceptibility by educating the public on how to reduce exposure to metals such as arsenic and lead and by training public health practitioners to assess and help prevent adverse health outcomes such as lead poisoning.

Stephanie Engel, PhD; Department of Epidemiology
Email: Stephanie.Engel@unc.eduPhone: (919) 966-7435

Environmental Cancer

Grandmother with adult daughter and grandchild riding bikes

Cancer research has been an area of strength at UNC-Chapel Hill and our Center builds upon the strengths in cancer research by emphasizing novel hypotheses and facilitating new projects in environmental carcinogenesis. Environmental cancers studied at UNC-CEHS include:

  • bladder cancer,
  • breast cancer,
  • colon cancer,
  • ovarian cancer, and
  • skin cancer.

North Carolina mirrors our nation with a substantial mortality disparity that exists for breast cancer between Black and White women, and the UNC-CEHS has supported researchers in efforts to understand the environmental and mechanistic bases for these disparities. Skin cancer has also been a priority among UNC-CEHS researchers as North Carolina has the fourth highest rate of melanoma in the US. Working closely with Center researchers, our UNC-CEHS COEC developed educational materials, trainings and web-based tools on breast and skin cancer risks and prevention and are disseminating these findings to public health practitioners throughout the state.

William Kaufmann, PhD; Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine
Email: Phone: (919) 966-8209